Thursday, January 22, 2009

Now Playing: Kingdom of Heaven Director's Cut

It is an increasing rarity when my mind is completely blown by a film. I can count on one hand the number of times that’s happened in the last five years. When “Kingdom of Heaven” hit theaters I figured I might hit it at some point. It barely registered on my radar, in other words.

Then it trickled out how Fox butchered it because the suits wanted a two hour battle film in the same vein as “Lord of the Rings,” basically a highlight reel. Ridley Scott naturally balked but that’s the cut that hit screens anyway. So I ignored it figuring a more definitive cut would find its way to my desk eventually. By God’s will, so to speak.

Lo and behold, I burned through it recently and was knocked flat in awe. Wow. If you ever thought three hours could never fly by then watch the director’s cut of “Kingdom of Heaven.” It is spectacular film making across the board. Lush, vibrant, historically accurate, respectful, and engaging. Simply put, this is dynamite entertainment on the grandest scale.

All of my beefs with Ridley Scott (primarily that he focuses more on sets and costumes than on actors) somehow coalesced into a good thing. Normally, I watch his films (“Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down” being the notable exceptions prior to this) with a sense of detachment. I’ve seen “Blade Runner” close to 20 times and I still don’t like it. I love the aesthetic and what it did for science fiction, but the hell of it remains that the story falls flat. Ditto “Alien” which is more of a ponderous bore than the haunted house film it’s made out to be.

I always get the feeling he’s more interested in the sets and the creation of worlds than in presenting a compelling story. Sure he’s had his fair share of duds (“G.I. Jane” anyone?) but for the most part he remains a film maker I respect, but whose films I usually am indifferent to. Then “Kingdom of Heaven” kicked me in the head and I sat there stunned wondering where the hell this Ridley Scott has been all my life.

Balien (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith in France in 1184 who finds himself swept up by a rogue crew of knights en route to Jerusalem. They’re a hardened bunch of badasses led by Godfry (Liam Neeson). Eventually, Balien winds up in the holy city only to find a political vortex inside as the leper king (a masked Edward Norton) has made an uneasy truce with the Muslim leader Saladin so that both Christians and Muslims may worship in the city walls. The Catholic church doesn’t care for that arrangement so they have their Templar Knights on hand to bring about war, one which Saladin may win due to superior numbers and experience at desert warfare.

Either way, the fate of the city will be God’s will.

This has to be the biggest film I’ve seen where God is front and center the entire running time. Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong. Both sides believe they are on God’s side, with only the ones in the middle understanding the nuances of the situation. Regardless of your beliefs, this is an epic film intricately detailing a defining moment in the world’s history. It may not be entirely historically accurate, but it is riveting entertainment that puts a human face on legendary events.

After watching this version, I consider the truncated option to be much more of a slash and burn than it probably is. An entire subplot was excised but it is a small one. It is not, however, an insignificant one and so much of what changes the characters during the back half of the film depends on this vital piece. I can see why people complained about certain characters taking a complete left turn from reality for the final 40 minutes because all reasons as to why were carelessly discarded in favor of siege towers. Seeing events play out as they were intended to, I’m left aghast at Fox’s decision to break it down to a series of large scale FX battles. Fox head Tom Rothman figured a three hour film wouldn’t play well. He must have forgotten “Titanic.”


If you have the chance to see this film, do so immediately. Bloom may not give the sturdiest performance, in fact he comes off as more emotionally distant at the end than his character should have been, but it is one among a great many fantastic actors who all step up and deliver. Jeremy Irons’ Tiberius in particular may be one of my favorite characters, followed closely by Alexander Siddig’s (go Dr. Bashir!) advisor and Neeson’s brief yet highly memorable turn. Also, the openness to interpretation of David Thewliss’ doctor character is magnified here. In short, I loved every frame of this film.

This is top notch entertainment.

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