Kingdom of Heaven is director Ridley Scott's return to the sword-and-sandal epic (sort of) after the Oscar-winning Gladiator. Like that Russell Crowe vehicle, it's a prestige combat movie of the post-Saving Private Ryan variety. It's a film where the perceived realism of the technologically enhanced gore is confused with artistry. These types of battle scenes in this case, grisly hand-to-hand combat, slo-mo savagery, daggers through throats, swords splitting skulls, blood squirting from sliced necks encourage a hushed appreciation from audiences (and far too many critics), the this-must-be-how-it-really-was! aura obscuring a surfeit of ideas about the meaning of the conflict.
I'll confess that I hated Gladiator. I found the film's combination of extreme violence and grim sanctimony off-putting, and Scott's disingenuousness made it worse. Gladiator's self-congratulatory critique of the bloodlust among the stadium masses was undercut by the way the film's gee-whiz ultraviolence encouraged exactly the same kind of bloodlust from its stadium-seated masses. Oh, and I thought the visual effects were crummy.
An oh-so-relevant retelling of the retaking of Jerusalem by Muslim armies at the end of the Second Crusade, Kingdom of Heaven is both better and worse than Gladiator, depending on your perspective. As escapist entertainment, I suppose it falls short of Gladiator's mark as it's less focused and star Orlando Bloom can't match the actorly magnetism of Crowe.
But Kingdom of Heaven is a more elegant and at least ostensibly more serious film. It's got a lot more on the brain.
The film opens in France in 1184 as a group of Crusaders led by Liam Neeson's Godfrey are making their way to Italy to set sail for the Holy Land. Along the way they pick up Bailin (Bloom), a sullen blacksmith mourning the recent death of his wife and child. With nothing left to live for in his modest French village, Bailin journeys to Jerusalem where he greets his destiny as a leader of men and some kind of outrageous anachronism.
The situation Bailin finds in Jerusalem is a city long controlled by Christendom, whose armies seized the city in the First Crusade roughly a century earlier. The city is governed by leper king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton behind a mask), who maintains an uneasy truce with Muslim armies led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
Baldwin is also juggling rival factions within his own walls good knights such as Godfrey and sage adviser Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), who wish to live in peace with their Muslim friends, and bad knights such as Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who are itching for a war.
Kingdom of Heaven is ultimately less about the conflict between Muslim and Christian societies than the conflict between good Westerners and bad Westerners, which implies that Scott is perhaps more interested in current domestic politics than the Crusades.
The Crusades are, of course, unmistakably connected to the present geopolitical mess, a connection underscored a couple of years ago with President Bush's tone-deaf reference to the current war on Muslim terrorists as a "crusade."
Possibly taking that bit of political incorrectness as his cue, Scott views the ancient conflict through the lens of the present, coming up with a politically correct retelling. Bloom's Bailin is a brooding, secular hero. (He might have been played by James Dean in an earlier, better movie.) He rejects God's role in his actions. ("God does not know me," he insists.) He rallies the citizens of Jerusalem in the film's climactic battle by rejecting religion and tradition as a reason to fight and instead citing the innocence (since none of them were even born when the Christians first seized the city) of the people within those walls. And when things go badly, he negotiates a surrender and retreat. Not the bang-bang ending you expect from a movie of this kind, but that's Scott's point.
Scott seems to think he's created a noble anti-war film that connects past to present, but in conflating the two eras he seems instead to have confused them both into the kind of muddled, mushy liberal fantasy that makes conservatives skeptical of Hollywood to begin with.
Crash is like a snarled and overlapping highway intersection that starts out, briefly, in one direction then quickly turns, folds over itself, overlaps several times, and ends up going in a number of directions.
It is an ensemble drama in the best sense. A large cast of recognizable actors is assembled to present an event, or events, through many perspectives. Familiar faces in Crash include Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, Ryan Phillippe, Matt Dillon, and the rapper Ludacris. They've even got Tony Danza, in one of the gutsiest TV-star cameos since Ted Danson showed up in Saving Private Ryan. Less familiar, but no less effective (and in fact, more so) are Michael Pena, Thandie Newton, Larenz Tate, and Terrence Howard. There are also, among these chiefly black, white, and Latino actors, Iranians, Asians, and various Europeans.
Fraser and Bullock play a district attorney and his wife. When two black youths steal their car, Fraser is concerned that the incident might be exploited while he's dealing with a sensitive, upcoming race-related case investigated by Cheadle, whose brother is missing and wanted for car theft.
Meanwhile, a successful black couple (Howard and Newton) is pulled over for alleged reckless driving by a racist cop and his liberal/anxious partner (Dillon and Phillippe, respectively). Dillon's cop cops a feel while frisking the wife in an effort to humiliate the husband. Phillippe looks on, aghast but impotent.
Elsewhere, a rough-looking locksmith lovingly tucks his daughter into bed after a long night of helping racist customers, among them, Bullock. Phillippe will encounter, quite separately, one of the thugs who stole Bullock's car, and Howard will encounter Ludacris and, separately, Phillippe. Dillon will encounter Newton again, and everyone will basically encounter each other.
It may sound reductive, but I couldn't help but think that in Los Angeles it would be a wild coincidence to run into the same random person twice in two days, much less 15 people running into each other in meaningful and sometimes heartbreaking combinations. The song "It's a Small World" kept going through my head, as I recalled my early lesson in diversity from DisneyWorld's boat ride. But race in America is not, alas, like that ride. Would that we could all have 48 hours in which to learn how small the world is without the losses incurred by some of the characters here.
Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) has directed a better film than he has written. He paints Los Angeles as a kind of dark wonderland, with the beginning and ending of the film containing a microcosm of people whose lives, over two days, are about race all the time. Haggis employs a number of striking camera angles and musical motifs for his exploration of perspective and ethical ambiguity. While his script may not be subtle, the fine performances and his directorial powers are in exacting form.
The crash alluded to in the title refers to several things. "We're always behind this metal and glass," Cheadle's character muses in his car that has just struck another at the film's beginning. "In any real city, people brush past people, bump into them. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can touch somebody."
This serves as a thesis statement for the film, and the remaining two hours are filled with these collisions. I hope a lot of people slow down and look. •