'Kingdom' falls just short of heaven

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

When he isn't busy with science-fiction hits such as "Alien" and "Blade Runner," or military movies like "Black Hawk Down" and "G.I. Jane," action specialist Ridley Scott sometimes opens the history books for material. Five years ago he struck Oscar and audience gold with the Roman epic "Gladiator," and this year he's hoping to do the same with "Kingdom of Heaven," a tale of Crusaders fighting Muslims in the Holy Land during the 12th century.

Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a young English blacksmith enlisted in the Crusades by his father, who's hitherto been absent from his life. Dad quickly leaves his life again, getting killed and thus passing along his aristocratic title to his son - who happens to be illegitimate - scandalizing the conservative set who don't think titles should go to just anyone.

Arriving in Jerusalem, our hero leads Christian forces striving to keep Saladin and his Muslim army out of the walled city, and finds time to romance a pretty princess along the way. The climax is a battle that Balian, badly outnumbered, insists on fighting in order to save as many innocent lives as possible within the city. The finale suggests that the cycle of violence will continue. That's certainly what happened historically, as new Crusaders replaced their fallen predecessors.

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"Kingdom of Heaven" is more ambitious than "Gladiator" in that William Monahan's screenplay wants to raise contemporary issues as well as ones rooted entirely in the past. As publicity materials point out, this is a rare look at the Christian-Muslim conflict made during the post-9/11 era. Twentieth Century Fox seems proud of its courage in tackling such a sensitive topic through a blockbuster movie.

I'd be more impressed with the studio's boldness, though, if it had taken on matters like the morality of holy wars and anti-Islamic bias directly, exploring them in a contemporary context instead of viewing them as they existed almost a millennium ago.

The movie's high quality as an adventure epic also works against any seriousness it might be aiming for. It presents its warfare in ways that are exciting to watch, rather than disturbing or scary in ways that call the validity of violence itself into question.

This notwithstanding, the entertainment value of "Kingdom of Heaven" is likely to make it the summer season's first walloping hit. Credit for this goes largely to Mr. Scott, who recycles the oldest action-movie gambits - barrages of razor-sharp arrows, people toppling from parapets, showers of molten lead raining down on enemies - with the eye of an audience-pleasing expert. He occasionally springs a real surprise, too, as in scenes dominated by an enigmatic ruler whose mask covers a face decimated by disease.

Plaudits also go to key members of the cast. I can't say Mr. Bloom makes an ideal adventure hero, but he's almost messianic next to Colin Farrell's zero-charisma appearance in "Alexander" last year.

It's always a pleasure to see the brilliant British actor David Thewlis, even when his role (as a sympathetic priest) is a limited showcase for his talents. Brendan Gleeson, as a veteran warrior, and Liam Neeson, as the hero's knightly pop, are versatile performers who can do just about anything. Eva Green lives up to her character's exotic name (Sibylla) as the beautiful princess.

All this is outweighed, though, by the filmmakers' decision to pay only lip service (at most) to the allegory of modern-day tensions that "Kingdom of Heaven" could have been.

In the end, the movie's only real message is: Religious wars are wrong. And hey, don't most of us already know that, whether the war is a crusade in the Middle Ages or a fanatic's terrorism in our own time?

Bottom line: "Kingdom of Heaven" is the most exciting action-adventure yarn so far this year. Just don't expect anything deeper.

Rated R; contains violence.

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