The timing couldn't be better for Kingdom Of Heaven, a Ridley Scott-directed film about life in the Holy Land between the second and third Crusades. With Gladiator, Scott proved he had an understanding of how to depict life in the pre-modern world from the ground level. With Black Hawk Down, he demonstrated his skill at depicting startlingly immediate warfare. But more importantly, the time feels right to reflect on the era of the Crusades. After all, with their wars and religious conflicts, their times already reflect ours. Unfortunately, timing isn't everything, and though Scott and screenwriter William Monahan seem to sense the material's contemporary resonance, they shy away from any but the most agreeable nods to modernity, letting milquetoast star Orlando Bloom deliver righteous speeches about peace and brotherhood to make the violent spectacle go down more easily. It's blood-spattered comfort food.
Bloom stars as Balian of Ibelin, a real historical figure, though one with little relation to his fictional counterpart. He begins the film as a blacksmith still grieving his wife's suicide as he pounds out horseshoes in 12th-century France. After killing a thieving priest in a fit of pique, Bloom takes up with Liam Neeson, a crusader who reveals himself as Bloom's father and recruits him for a quest to the Holy Land. After some initial resistance, Bloom signs on and continues his journey even after misadventures leave him shipwrecked and alone. Once in Christian-controlled Jerusalem, he assumes his father's place as a lieutenant to the leprosy-stricken, mask-wearing King Baldwin (an uncredited Edward Norton, at least in voice), and discovers he's in harmony with the king's peace-inclined aide-de-camp Jeremy Irons, in conflict with the hawkish Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), and in love with an enemy's wife (Eva Green).
The action shifts to the area surrounding Jerusalem, then moves back to the city itself as it comes under siege by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). A pitiless military strategist but a deeply moral man whose humane treatment of Christians only emphasized the barbarity Christians displayed during their own conquest of Jerusalem, Saladin embodied many of the Crusades' contradictions. Between the massacres, there were opportunities for cultural exchange, and for a while, Jerusalem itself seemed to struggle to restore the peace it had before the arrival of the Crusaders, regardless of who ran the city. Massoud plays Saladin magnetically, and his arrival only illustrates how many opportunities Kingdom misses. Another, better movie would have made him the focus.
But instead, there's Kingdom Of Heaven, with its choppy pacing, thin characterization, poorly realized romantic subplot, unsatisfying resolution, and dramatic slackness. Bloom's reluctance to fight and the film's evenhanded depiction of both sides of the conflict may be admirable, but neither decision ramps up the excitement. Meanwhile, Bloom remains a cipher. If the action didn't pause periodically to let him talk about his crisis of faith, it wouldn't be apparent he was having one. (If ever a film needed Mel Gibson, it's this one.) The battle scenes look spectacular, but with Scott behind the camera, that's kind of a given, and ultimately, Kingdom Of Heaven has little going for it but those battle scenes. Only if Scott set out to make Pearl Harbor with siege towers and chain mail should he consider this a job well done.