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A humanist in Christ’s clothing: Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven.

Faithless Crusaders
By Ann Morrow

Kingdom of Heaven

Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott’s incredible- looking Kingdom of Heaven is set in the Holy Land between the second and third crusades, an especially barbarous place and time that the filmmakers bungle with good intentions. Following the fateful exploits of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), a blasphemous blacksmith heavily favored by God, the film is an action spectacular composed of one awesome battle scene after another, yet the message that it holds aloft like a banner is one of moderation and tolerance—two qualities that were virtually unknown in the 12th century. And in presenting a calculatedly balanced portrait of long-ago Christians and Muslims that downplays their religious fervor, this blood-spurting war movie comes off as somewhat bloodless, or at least gutless. What it needs is more zealotry, more greed, and more intrigue, to be—at least as far as the script’s murky geopolitics is concerned—more Elizabethan. But Scott scrupulously avoids any scheming or speechifying that could be construed as inflammatory, and his hero is too bland to be a figurehead for either cause. Any analogies between the spice trade of then and the oil industry of today are too faint to register.

Then again, it makes good narrative sense to excise all the Jews, Turks, and innocent pilgrims, and keep the conflict strictly between Crusaders and Saracens, with a contingent of evil French Templars to advance the plot. Loosely based on real people and events (screenwriter William Monahan is a journalist), Kingdom of Heaven is about the hostility between the army of Jerusalem, whose peaceable King (Edward Norton) is dying of leprosy, and the forces of the virtuous warlord Saladin. True to history, war becomes inevitable when a renegade French nobleman, Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) attacks the sultan’s caravan. Reynald’s ally is Guy de Lusignan (delectably hissable Marton Csokas), a fop who wants all-out war because “God wills it.” And also because he and Reynald are arrogant wackos, as befits Scott’s penchant for over-the-top villains. For some unfathomable reason, Reynald’s hair has electric-orange highlights.

For a time, the Templars are held in check by a faction of rational humanists, conveniently anticipating Martin Luther by several hundred years. Led by a war-weary veteran played by Jeremy Irons (who must’ve sandpapered his larynx in order to sound convincingly grizzled), the faction includes the leper King (hidden behind an Amadeus-style mask, Norton is subtly powerful), a fatalistic Hospitaler (David Thewlis, who does a lot with very little), and Balian, and upon whom fortune smiles to an unbelievable degree.

When the film opens, Balian is accursed—his wife committed suicide—and therefore ready to be swept by destiny from his mud hut in France to the parapets of the Holy City. This ravishing chain of events begins with the arrival of the father he didn’t know he had, Godfrey, baron of Ibelin (Liam Neeson, the very picture of medieval vitality), and continues with his movingly staged knighting and on to a beautifully shot shipwreck. Occasionally, Monahan’s dialogue hits the mark, as when Godfrey tells Balian, “Whatever you want of me, take it now.” He doesn’t get much of a response, though: Bloom’s limpid-eyed dolor only goes so far.

The first part of Kingdom is carried by Neeson’s repentant Godfrey, and the last part by Ghassan Massoud as Saladin. Charismatic, striking, and with a musical accent that makes “available” sound like a six-syllable incantation, Massoud is ideal as the enlightened leader, who was more chivalrous than his enemies. In one of the best-written scenes, Saladin neatly reconciles preparation with predestination. In between, the drama hinges on Balian’s affair with the king’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green), who is Guy’s wife. The romance is fitted clumsily into the grand scheme of things, and their single love scene is obviously chopped. It seems Balian just isn’t that into her. Bloom is somewhat better on the battlefield, relying on agility rather than brute strength, but he’s not particularly compelling as a fighter, either. And without a strong personality to follow through the clanging swords, charging horses, and flaming corpses, Scott’s awe-inspiring battle scenes become wearying.

That’s really unfortunate, because technically the film is a marvel, capturing the fantastical and the barbarous more dazzlingly than any other epic. And by trying to convey “a kingdom of conscience,” Kingdom certainly hews to a higher ground than Gladiator. But in the end, the film is doomed not by an excess of passion, as its characters were, but by the lack of it.

Worlds Collide

Crash

Directed by Paul Haggis

Conceptually, Crash has too much in common with movies like Magnolia (good) and Grand Canyon (not good). It is filled with disparate characters whose lives, almost against all odds, are actually intertwined—whose destinies are connected. You’re left to be awestruck at the cosmic beauty of it all, to feel a warm-cuddly about the state of humanity. Well, that’s what you’re supposed to feel. In actuality, if you’re like me, you’re reaching for the barf bag.

Actually, the good thing about Crash is that it somehow avoids inducing out-and-out nausea. The bad thing is that it strives mightily to do so, what with screenwriter and novice director Paul Haggis’ insistence on making the motivations for a series of interactions be spurred on solely by a racism that serves as a convenient beard to all manner of other miseries. Marital woes, lack of personal fulfillment, poverty, poor health—to a person, the characters in Crash fail to dissect these ordinary problems in favor of lashing out at any “other” that crosses, or crashes into, their path.

I was thankful that I missed the opening scene, in which detective Graham (Don Cheadle) and his partner-lover Ria (Jennifer Esposito), following a fender-bender, philosophize about what it exactly means. Poor or inattentive driving? Nah, says the sad-eyed Graham, who favors some line of hooey about how, given the lack of humanity in everyday L.A. life, car crashes like this force us to reconnect, somehow, if only momentarily. Ria, on the other hand, takes the matter much more practically, that is before her reasoning devolves into a name-calling tirade against the Asian driver of the other vehicle. The rest of the movie relies on the idea that collisions, be they vehicular or cultural, serve the purpose of showing us what kind of people we really are, giving us the chance for good or evil.

Nowhere is this more evident then in the series of scenes involving LAPD Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), who, during a routine traffic stop, humiliates successful black television producer Cameron (Terrence Howard) before molesting his protesting wife Christine (Thandie Newton). The tension of this moment, encapsulating how quickly the wealthy, educated black man can be reduced to terrified impotence, is made that much more painful by the way Christine subsequently harangues Cameron for his lack of action. That these two are relegated to arguing in such terms, in these days, is shattering. Later, Ryan, whom we have witnessed lovingly care for his ailing father, is in a situation in which he can save the endangered Christine. Concurrently, Cameron, his anger seething as he sees the ways in which he perhaps has acquiesced to live within a white world order, pulls a gun and threatens a cop, and still later, Ryan’s sensitive partner (Ryan Phillippe) has to deal with his own, heretofore unknown feelings of racism. The acting throughout these moments elevates the scenes from Haggis’s rather one-dimensional theme that there’s good and bad in everybody; we can almost forget the thudding refrain of this theme through the sheer believability of Dillon, Howard, Newton and Phillippe.

Haggis uses neat literary devices to tie things together. Also highly literary is the dialogue, which is smart and crackling, like the best 1930s dramas—but, let’s be honest, this is just not how people talk. Nevertheless, it’s utter joy to hear Chris Bridges (aka the rapper Ludicrous), riff endlessly about the myriad ways “the white man” dehumanizes the poorer classes and complain about how a wealthy woman (Sandra Bullock) noticeably avoids crossing paths with him and his friend (Larenz Tate). The joke turns out to be that these young men are, in fact, carjackers, who make quick work of Bullock’s Lincoln Navigator. The movie features some lovely quiet moments, particularly when a locksmith (Michael Pena), whose gangish tattoos belie a gentle spirit and domestic nature, calms his frightened daughter’s nerves with a tale about an invisibility cloak. Haggis can’t help himself by making this moment drip with foreshadowing, but even the painfully silly denouement can’t take away from Pena’s wrenching frankness.

There are so many things that I loved about Crash, and so many times since seeing it that I’ve recommended it to people, and yet, it’s a downright annoying movie. What works? The complex and deeply felt acting and the convoluted yet brisk and toothsome dialogue are real treats and lend a sense of great dramatic power. And yet, Haggis, perhaps through inexperience, fails to deliver a sense of urgency, or moral imperative, to drive his characters or his story. His reliance on big themes—which he repeatedly and painstakingly spells out in case we don’t get it—comes off as preachy and condescending, both to his presumably well-heeled audience and to the victims of racial profiling and prejudice he purports to care about. Had he been a little less insistent on proving his sincerity, Crash could have had more impact.

—Laura Leon


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