How do you make the Crusades boring? That's the question that director Ridley Scott appears to have asked himself before setting off on his cinematic pilgrimage to the Holy Land ' or, as he prefers to call it, the Kingdom of Heaven. Christendom's centuries-long quest to call Jerusalem its own may have been "a vast fiasco," as scholar Steven Runciman described it in his three-volume History of the Crusades, but rarely was it boring. In fact, one could make the argument that there was never a dull moment as Christians and Muslims hacked away at one another, always coming up with new ways to torture and terrify in the name of God. Both sides used to lob the heads of prisoners over the city's walls, for instance. Disgraceful? Yes. Boring. Unh-uh.
No heads take flight in Kingdom of Heaven, an omission that may have some of you whispering under your breath, "Thank the Lord for small favors." The thing is, the movie doesn't really take flight either. Instead, it just keeps plodding along, flapping its very large wings. Scott plumbed the depths of vengeful wrath in Gladiator, rubbing our noses in the fact that we rather like the smell of blood. (Were we not entertained?) Here, he almost seems to be holding his nose. Not that the movie isn't filled to the brim with violence, the battle scenes a panorama of computer-enhanced mayhem. But you get the impression, while watching the armies mass for another testing of God's will, that Scott's heart isn't really in it this time.
Strangely, the movie's built around a hero whose heart isn't in it. The Crusades more or less stand for religious fervor, but Orlando Bloom's Balian, a blacksmith, has lost his faith as a result of his child's death and his wife's suicide. And he spends the entire movie trying to get it back. That his search, which takes him to the pinnacle of power in a Jerusalem rife with strife, remains a puzzle even after he's completed it suggests that Scott and scriptwriter William Monahan are walking among eggshells. They're so desperate to avoid offending any vested interest that they've drained the movie of the very conflicts that kept the Crusades going for so long. Like Oskar Schindler, the non-Nazi Nazi, Balian's a non-Christian Christian.
He's also a bore. Bloom, his cocker-spaniel hair doing most of his acting for him, doesn't have the gravitas ' okay, the balls ' for a role that Russell Crowe would have unleashed hell upon. It's as if Maximus has sent his valet. Then again, nobody leaves much of an impression ' not Liam Neeson as a knight who's had his fill of killing, not Brendan Gleeson as a knight who could never have his fill of killing, not France's Eva Green as the requisite love interest, a regal beauty whose kohl-rimmed eyes suggest a raccoon in heat. Only Edward Norton, supplying the voice for King Baldwin, a leper who hides his hideously deformed face behind a strangely expressive mask, breaks through the movie's dramatic inertia.
Oh, and Ghassan Massoud's Saladin, the Muslim Geronimo. A hero to this day in large parts of the Muslim world, Saladin either freed or enslaved Jerusalem, depending on your perspective. And Massoud endows him with a fierce dignity. You've got to hand it to a big-budget Hollywood movie that culminates with Jerusalem being surrendered to the Muslims, especially given the current political climate. But you also have to wonder whether, in bending over so far to be fair, Scott hasn't lost his footing. One thing you can say about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: It gave you something to argue about. But it's hard to imagine even the newly elected pope and the self-appointed Osama bin Laden getting all worked up over Kingdom of Heaven.