Thursday, February 8, 2007

Film Review: Kingdom of Heaven

"That's me in the spotlight... Losing my religiiiion."

(Originally published in The Clovis Independent at the film's release.)

Sir Ridley Scott should have his shining armor revoked.

There's just no excuse for botching an easy sell like a post-Sept. 11 crusader flick, particularly when you're the man behind populist hits like "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down."

The failure in question is knight's tale "Kingdom of Heaven," which continued Hollywood's 11-week industry slump last week, posting an underwhelming $20 million debut against $150 million in production costs.

It's not just that this epic spectacle on the 1187 fall of Jerusalem is so epically unspectacular. It's how flagrantly and willfully self-inflicted a wound it is.

The film opts to kick Christians in the cod-piece repeatedly while painting a glowing picture of their Muslim enemy, the Seljuk Turks, depicted here not as the expansionist power they were, but as brave, longsuffering victims of U.S. -- er, Western European -- intervention in the Middle East.

Brilliant box office strategy. (Expect solid receipts in Tajikistan and North Yemen, though.)

I'm not here to defend the Crusades in every aspect. But let's be clear how they began.

The elusive kingdom of peace Scott venerates in the film actually existed at one point – it was before the fanatical Seljuks crushed their own Fatimid Egyptian rivals, sacked Jerusalem, invaded the Byzantine Empire and cut off pilgrim routes to the Holy Land previously open to all faiths for centuries.

Yet Scott and screenwriter William Monahan bend over backward to put the "great" in Seljuk leader Saladin the Great while damning the fanaticism of the crusaders, the historically dumped-on Templar Knights in particular.

(Poor Templars, first the Inquisitors, then Sir Walter Scott, then Sir Ridley Scott. ...And Sir Ridley doesn't even give them credit as the Spartans they were, men who invariably stood to the man against overwhelming odds rather than convert to Islam.)

Scott says his goal was to "right the wrongs of history" with this picture. Sort of the cinematic equivalent of affirmative action.

The result is a "Rocky" film more concerned with building up Apollo Creed's self esteem and fight history than the under-dog appeal of a whitey like Rocky.

In "Kingdom," the best our hero can do is mount the battlements and rally the troops with a rousing "everybody deserves to win" speech.

Hooray for our side.

On the plus side, Scott may prove mortal at last, but he's still Ridley Scott. The film looks brilliant early on, promising combat action to come at least as thrilling as "Gladiator."

There are several fine secondary performances, too, particularly the magnetic Marton Csokas and a buccaneering Brendan Gleeson as tag-team Templar baddies.

Yet given the self-imposed restraints, even the final battle becomes an exercise in futility, in terms of both story and emotional resonance.

Worse, all the best characters (even the villains, so watchable because they at least have an actual point of view) die out one by one along the way, leaving us in the end with a tinfoil knight we can't bring ourselves to cheer for versus a Muslim enemy we're not allowed to root against.

When asked what Jerusalem is worth toward the end of the film, Saladin answers, "Nothing... And everything."

Scott hopes it will play as a moment of grand significance. Chalk it up instead for what it is, the rattled confusion of a fallen knight trying to fight without a horse.

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