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Kingdom of Heaven

A Harbinger of Good Things To Come

It has begun. Summer blockbuster season is here and, like the groundhog, the first movie to open is always a litmus test for what to expect the next couple of months. Kingdom of Heaven, while far from being the best movie of the year, is an encouraging starting off point and hopefully a harbinger of good things to come.

The film opens in twelfth-century Europe, a germ-ridden, peasant-oppressing, starving, and stinking mess. However, the city of Jerusalem is considered an idealized haven full of socialist ethos (at least according to director Ridley Scott -- Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) where one could forge a new life (call it the OG America if you will).

Bloom (in his now second stint as a (na´ve) blacksmith) plays the Balian, a recent widower. The death of his wife has him wracked with guilt and serves as part of the impetus for him to trek to Jerusalem and seek absolution. The other is Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), Balian's long lost (indeed unheard of) father, who reveals his mutual DNA to him with all the pomp and tact of Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back when that famous line is uttered, "Luke, I am your father." Just substitute "Balian" with Luke. But I digress.

When he finally makes it to Jerusalem, Balian is quick to discover that things are not what they seem. The holiest place in Christendom is far from holy and the political situation is even worse. There is an uneasy truce between Christians and Muslims including the diverse residents of Jerusalem and their respective Kings, Baldwin the Christian King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton) and the Muslim King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), leader of the Saracens. This peace is in constant danger of being destroyed by overeager Templar Knights and fanatical/opportunistic Christians led by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson). Reynald's right hand man, the arrogant and cruel Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), also happens to be married to the Princess (Eva Green) who, of course, takes one look at Balian and decides he's going to be her new booty call.

Kingdom of Heaven features stunning recreations such as that of Messina, the port city which leads to Jerusalem, a swarm of vultures picking over the dead after a bloody battle that evokes a prehistoric and macabre wonder and the great battle for Jerusalem, in which fireballs catapulted through the twilight seem like stars against the indigo sky.

However, the slow-mo action shots are so tight that they can make one dizzy and tend to take away from the grand-scale of the battles. Nonetheless, the film tends to stray away from the curse of (most) all ostentatious epics -- saccharine lines meant to stir the heart but which nearly always tend to make one roll one's eyes. Actor David Thewlis as Hospitaler is a scene-stealer as is Edward Norton (King Baldwin) in his magnificent masks; it's a shame there wasn't more of either of these characters.

Ridley Scott has his moments, the story is engaging and each actor pulls off strong performances. While a Gladiator this film is not, it is better than last year's epic Troy.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars