Set in the late 1180s during the tenuous Christian-Muslim détente that immediately preceded the Third Crusade, "Kingdom of Heaven" follows a woebegotten young blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) as he journeys from his small French village to the Holy Land in search of absolution for his sins. It helps, too, that he stands to inherit the nearby fiefdom of his father, the inveterate Crusader Lord Godfrey (Liam Neeson). But Jerusalem, which has been under the control of a ragtag band of Christian lords and knights for nearly a century, sits in a precarious position. The surrounding Muslim horde has finally organized under the leadership of the great Kurdish warrior Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), and only a delicate truce between Saladin and the leprous King Baldwin of Jerusalem (a masked Edward Norton) forestalls all-out war. Worse, Baldwin is dying, and with the Crusaders themselves split as to how to best handle the situation, it's only a matter of time before the warmongers, led by the scheming Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), have their way, suffering Jerusalem to endure one of the worst sieges of its endlessly besieged history. It is here, in a kind of Alamo-like last-stand, that the dour Balian must assume not just the position but the disposition of a knight and lead the defense of the city.
While there was, in fact, a knight named Balian who led Jerusalem's defense in 1187, he remains something of a historical cipher. That's normally the kind of opening that prompts a good screenwriter to play speculative historian, but William Monahan is more Shane Black than Robert Bolt, less interested in unraveling the vagaries of history than recycling well-worn archetypes and clichés that have beset historical epics from the time of Cecil B. DeMille's earliest silents. Painfully mechanical in its adherence to conventional screenplay structure, with overwritten dialogue callbacks, unmotivated reversals and a hokey love triangle involving Balian, Guy de Lusignan and Guy's reluctant queen Sibylla (Eva Green), "Kingdom of Heaven" is too often a film at odds with itself, torn between Scott's apparent desire to present an artful, intelligent recreation of the period and the studio's need to play more generally to thrill-seeking lowest common denominator filmgoers.
What is most irritating about Monahan's script, however, is its smug sense of self-importance, unsubtly calling attention to any and all present-day parallels as if the film itself were uncovering them for the very first time. That it pretends to be a serious consideration of the historical roots of Christian-Muslim enmity while simultaneously whitewashing the event of the horrific barbarity that defined it merely adds insult to injury.
At the same time, much of "Kingdom of Heaven" also feels substandard by Scott's own standards. Scarcely four years after he directed "Gladiator" to a Best Picture Oscar, effectively reinventing the sword-and-sandals genre for the 21st century, Scott now seems more imitative than innovative, falling into many of the same pitfalls -- namely a failure to counterbalance bombast and scale with thoughtful detail -- that consumed Oliver Stone's "Alexander" and Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy." Even the elaborate siege sequence, which drags on for 15 minutes, feels like a tepid replay of any number of similar sequences from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Helping the cause somewhat is the cast of mostly classically-trained Brits -- particularly Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis and Irishman Brendan Gleeson -- whose uncanny ability to lend distinction to Monahan's dialogue salvages many a scene that would otherwise seem corny or pretentious. Just about everyone has their own "St. Crispin's Day" speech, but it isn't until the end -- when Balian is asked to deliver two such orations inside of 10 minutes -- that they lose their bloom.
Screenplay woes notwithstanding, it should be noted that "Kingdom of Heaven" deals in a more difficult emotional currency than "Gladiator," which is the internality of redemption as opposed to the externality of revenge. That the film fails to fully explain Balian's motivations and his instantaneous and inexplicable transition from blacksmith to master tactician is partly a screenwriting flaw, but also a case of miscasting. Despite his best efforts, Bloom lacks the world-weary weight that might lend credibility to his expressions of angst and indignation. Nor is it helpful that he has become such a familiar face in films of this sort -- this is his second turn as a blacksmith-turned-heroic swordsman (after "Pirates of the Caribbean"), and his sixth consecutive film portraying some form of tunic-wearing warrior. Without a more intelligent or demanding screenplay, Bloom is powerless to give audiences much more than an amalgamation of characters previously played.
If anything, "Kingdom of Heaven" feels like a throwback to the days of Anthony Mann's 1961 "El Cid," a similarly hokey-yet-polished tale of heroism and honor in the face of Islamic aggression from roughly the same period and filmed in many of the same Spanish locales. Those who wax nostalgic for such films and their escapist credo may well find "Kingdom of Heaven" a welcome tonic. As for everyone else, a half-century of Middle-Eastern bloodshed probably puts too much of a damper on the subject to approach it with anything less than abject cynicism. Starring Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas and Liam Neeson. Directed and produced by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan. A Fox release. Historical drama. Rated R for strong violence and epic warfare. Running time: 145 min