Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Written William Monahan
Starring Orlando Bloom, with Eva Green, Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, Alexander Siddig, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michael Sheen, Edward Norton. Yup, pretty much everybody.  

    Back when this first came out in 2005, I heard it was pretty much insipid crap with pretty pictures trying to cynically cash in on the big CGI battle fever the nation briefly caught thanks to the LORD OF THE RINGS films. But over the years, something extremely unusual happened -- director Ridley Scott, more or less on his own, brought out a director’s cut which included more than 45 more minutes. And as word got out about this cut, people started talking very positively about the film. So much so that the consensus seemed to switch from negative to positive. When does that ever happen? So, given that Scott’s most recent PROMETHEUS decidedly underwhelmed me, I thought I’d give him an opportunity to win me back with his saved-from-popular-oblivion swords n’ sandals rags-to-riches religion-to-atheism historical fiction topical crusades epic.

What Scott and co. have crafted here is something decidedly old-fashioned. It’s a big budget, serious, humorless, talky epic heroes journey which has some not-so-subtle subtext related to our own political world. There’s some big battles and some awe-inspiring images, but to get to them you’re going to have to actually pay attention to who’s who and what they’re all up to. Which is probably why the studio, at the request of underestimator-of-the-American-public-in-chief Tom Rothman, cut all that stuff out for the theatrical release. You can see how that would cripple the film, in that it’s pretty much the only reason to tell this particular story. It’s all about the various arbiters of power in the region, the paths they represent, and the way they interact with each other. Of course, given that they live in crusades-era Jerusalem (currently under new management), that interaction is sometimes going to involve huge scale action scenes and a respectably high ratio of beheading scenes to non-beheading scenes.

Some of those that work forces / are the same that wore crosses

Into this mess steps Balian (Orlando Bloom), a simple French blacksmith with a British accent (which probably alienates him from his fellow Frenchmen, although in fairness they all speak English too) who learns that his real father is badass Middle Eastern Baron Godfrey (Liam “Venerable Jedi” Neeson) and that he’s the heir to a dusty, rock-strewn castle in the Holy Land. One thing leads to another, and before you know it he’s conversing with the Leper King Baldwin IV (Ed Norton), bedding a married princess (Eva Green), fighting duels with strangers (stuntmen), lecturing people about the equality of man, and ultimately defending Jerusalem from an invading army of Muslims (Dr. Bashir, others) who are none too happy about having these nutball religious fanatics from the West fucking with them all the time. Man, they kept busy then.

It’s a patently ridiculous tale, loosely based on real history, but it sort of works because Scott plays it so seriously. There’s no winking postmodernism here, no levity to let us know that Scott doesn’t really expect us to buy its old-fashion moralizing and courtly intrigue. Instead, Orlando Bloom scowls, monologues, and hacks his way through the barbaric, brutal world of religious zealotry and political machinations that he encounters in his journey, reserving barbed quips only for the enemies of freedom, equality, and peace that he must inevitably defeat first verbally, and then through violence.

The movie’s obvious analogy to today’s religious conflicts is pretty overt, and in fact Scott and writer William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, BODY OF LIES) do probably go too far in trying to convert this alien world of savage survivalism to something which would resonate with modern viewers. For every murderous tyrannical maniac, it seems like there are five enlightened men of wisdom who would probably today be branded as radical leftists on Fox. It’s a little hard to believe, but Scott counters that he tweaked the film’s values towards modern perspectives in an effort to allow modern audiences to understand the dynamics of the characters and the way they would be perceived at the time. Fair enough, I’ll grant it works on that level. I must say, though, that the whole message is delivered so eagerly and so bluntly that it dulls the effect and makes the whole enterprise seem like a whole lot of unnecessary effort to deliver a pretty obvious and superficial message about how we ought to all just get along.

Oh no, it's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

Fortunately, the film has more going for it than its subtext. At its best, it evokes STAR WARS and Scott’s own BLADE RUNNER in its immersive introduction to a living, breathing, completely alien world. The camera delights in tackling grand vistas of 12th century Jerusalem, which Scott presents (in contrast to dismal, dirt-farming Europe) as a thriving, modern city full of a diverse cast of exotic locals. It’s all background to the pretty aristocratic types that guide the film’s story, of course -- but if you’re gonna be a colorful background peasant, you might as well have Ridley Scott shooting you because he’s gonna make that shit look good. It’s a little bit of a shame that the story is so focused on the machinations of power, since the world is obviously developed enough that we could have some fun exploring its ins and out -- but that’s not what Scott is up to here, and even if we can’t play in his world the way we might want, at least we can appreciate a unique backdrop for the action. And even if the film can get talky and verge on melodrama at times, there’s a vitality and a brutality to the environment that keeps things from getting too murky. The tenuous nature of any peace hangs in the air at all times. Characters who seem likely to become integral to the plot can die violent, random deaths at any time. As stilted and revised a history as this may be, it succeeds in capturing a very Hobbesian kind of logic. Life here is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and often short, and indeed, the only way to keep any veneer of civility is through fastidiously cultivated overwhelming power.

That dynamic, combined with its unusual locale and old-fashioned aspirations enhanced with cutting-edge filmmaking, makes for a unique and worthwhile experience. I’ve heard words like “masterpiece” bandied around discussing this cut, and that seems a bit hyperbolic to me. It’s a bit plodding, a bit pandering, a bit ridiculous for the level of seriousness it’s trying to sustain. And although Bloom works his ass off and definitely pulls his weight, I must admit that he may not quite have the overwhelming charisma necessary to anchor something like this. Still, it’s an enjoyable and immersive effort which is never less than highly watchable. At the very least, it deserves the second chance it got to work it’s clumsy but undeniable charm on those filmgoers who have an attention span longer than a skittles commercial. The battle between us and the Tom Rothmans of the world is something of a holy war in itself, and this cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN represents a real, if modest, win. But capturing Jerusalem is easy. The hard part is keeping it. 

Fortunately, this resolved the whole conflict once and for all.

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