It’s 1186. Not a good year for Balian — the French blacksmith played by Brit sensation Orlando Bloom, minus the blond locks that goosed his ride to dom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Balian’s wife kills herself after losing their baby in childbirth. When a priest steals a crucifix from the corpse and orders her decapitated, Balian plunges his sword into the priest’s belly.
Same day, no kidding, Balian gets a visit from Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), the famed knight who announces, “I am your father,” and invites him along to Jerusalem in the service of the leper King Baldwin IV, who wants to keep the city open to Christians, Jews and Muslims. “I have done murder,” says the son. “Haven’t we all?” says the father, who teaches Balian how to wield a sword like a street fighter. Neeson is a great, forceful presence. “I fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle,” Godfrey says. He’s that kind of guy. Ridley Scott, directing balls-out as he did in Black Hawk Down (which also featured Bloom) and Gladiator, stages a knockdown brawl when Godfrey’s men take the soldiers out to arrest Balian. Heads roll, blood gushes, and throats are speared clear through. But there’s still time for Godfrey to knight Balian and charge him to protect the holy city from the Saracen army, led by the Muslim legend Saladin (the superb Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud gives a performance that should be remembered at awards time), and the greedy, militant Knights Templars, led by Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas, a walking sneer), who both see war as an IPO and faith as an excuse to launch it.
William Monahan’s deft script underscores the modern parallels in this story without hitting us upside the head. Set between the second and third crusades, the film is not anti-Muslim, it’s anti-fanaticism — taking on both sides of the “God wills it” equation. The script takes its biggest liberties with Balian, a fact-based character who has been Hollywoodized into heroism. He’s a fighter, a lover of King Baldwin’s kohl-eyed sister Sybilla (Eva Green of The Dreamers), who is also Guy’s wife, and a moralist. Balian will not act against his conscience even when the king (touchingly voiced by Edward Norton behind a silver mask to hide his rotting flesh) and his trusted adviser Tiberius (Jeremy Irons, complex and compelling) offer to remove Guy to clear the way for Balian to marry Sybilla and become king when Baldwin dies.p> Odd as it is to say, Kingdom of Heaven loses its momentum the more Balian gets religion. The role calls at first for a numbness brought on by grief and ends with a saintly fervor befitting a champion of the people. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe propelled the plot with the fire of his vengeance. Bloom gives his all, but virtue is hell to play and double hell on down-and-dirty fun.
eeson, Irons and Csokas get the juiciest scenes, as do David Thewlis as a warrior-priest and Brendon Gleeson as a bearded lord who goes into a happy dance just thinking of going to war. As always, Scott can stage action like nobody’s business. The siege on Jerusalem makes striking use of digital armies and assault towers. When Balian turns slaves into soldiers by knighting them, you want to shout, “I am Spartacus!” Before surrendering the city, Balian asks Saladin, “What is Jerusalem worth?” “Nothing,” says the Muslim of the pile of stones. Then, realizing the city’s symbolic power, he answers, “Everything.”After the box-office falls of Alexander, Troy and King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven is meant to bring the epic back to Gladiator-size glory. Scott delivers rousing entertainment layered with provocation. But he’s up against the same core contradiction as the U.S. in Iraq: How do you justify the spectacle of bloody carnage while preaching the gospel of give peace a chance?