Ridley Scott must have seen Pearl Harbor and said, “That’s what I want to do!” And William Monahan, who had split a jumbo carton of Raisinets with Scott, said, “I’ll get you a script by Monday.” What other explanation is there? Since Pearl Harbor, no one can claim ignorance of the historical epic’s cinematic follies; Scott & Co. must have meant to employ them. Judged by those standards, Kingdom of Heaven acquits itself admirably. It nails the trifecta of overblown-period-piece suck.
- Writing. William Monahan won an Oscar for writing the departed. He sure didn’t earn it here; Kingdom of Heaven has one of those rare scripts that dares to show and tell. Like when Balian (Orlando Bloom), accused of killing a priest, helpfully informs his just-found father (Liam Neeson) that the charges are true. We know, Balian. We saw you set him on fire. And how about the clichés? Surrendering Jerusalem to Saladin—after lots of period battle scenes, after lots of speeches that are stirring only in that they sound like other speeches that actually are stirring—Balian asks his erstwhile opponent what the city is worth. “Nothing,” says Saladin. He paces away, then turns back. Guess his next line. There’s also the fact that the screenplay grants its characters as much depth and humanity as a crime blotter, and probably ended every line of dialogue with “[Significant pause].” Hell, that’s probably why this thing runs 150 bloated minutes.
- Directing. Kingdom of Heaven had a budget of $130 million. Ridley Scott puts every dollar on screen in the least efficient way. Okay, he couldn’t really film character development, since the script gave him nothing to work with, but instead of trying to tell a story Scott loads up every frame with stuff. During the siege, Saladin’s forces storm the walls of Jerusalem with wheeled assault towers. Balian’s defenders attach ropes to spears, skewer the towers, and topple them. We get it the first time, but apparently Scott had some CGI budget to spend, because he shows another tower falling, then another, then another, and then pans across the wall to show them toppling in sequence. The movie is so rich in visual detail that it ends up being as redundant as the script.
- Acting. Why is Orlando Bloom here? His biggest hits were CGI-heavy series where thespianism got bumped from the marketing strategy in favor of Burger King cups. Don’t make him do the heavy lifting in a “philosophical” historical epic, because the result is 150 minutes of his must-not-fart face. The script gives Balian one note—grim but noble determination—so it’s hard to blame Orlando for milking it dry, but no one else gets more than one note and they somehow work around it. David Thewlis owns the movie in the filler role of the priest, Liam Neeson manages to enliven Balian’s Crusader father, Kevin McKidd does the work as a doomed exposition mouthpiece—fuck, Martin Csokas shifts himself to enliven a villain whose main task is to wind up naked and dunce-capped on the back of an ass. It’s Balian’s story, so it’s Bloom’s movie, and in it Bloom reveals that his only talent is making teen girls squeal. If he starred in a romantic comedy with his fellow grooming-salon graduate Jennifer Aniston, the charisma vacuum they’d generate would turn the universe inside out.
Somewhere in Kingdom of Heaven, there’s a point about Christianity and Islam, West and (Middle) East, coexisting in piece—about the value of religious belief when weighed against human life. Someone else can talk about that. I’m more interested in the movie’s point about Hollywood. The witless script, the clueless direction, the somnambulant acting—these were all mistakes that Pearl Harbor made. That movie still stands as a cinematic nadir. Not for nothing did the puppet in Team America sing, “I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made Pearl Harbor—and that’s an awful lot, girl.” But since PH made $450 million worldwide on a $140-million budget, the crappiness of the thing was forgotten and the parasitic lifeform flourished. Here it is again, and the only good thing I can say about it is that this incarnation is (slightly) better than King Arthur.