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It should have been the big-budget, over the top film to open the summer season, perhaps even Ridley Scott’s next masterpiece, but sadly, and not unlike the empires the film depicts, Kingdom of Heaven falls faster than a row of carefully aligned dominos. If you, like myself, were expecting this film to be the next Gladiator (for lack of a better analogy), then you will probably be sorely disappointed with what Scott has conjured here. In fact, it is almost impossible to see what went so wrong with this film, considering that just three years earlier Scott nearly scooped an Oscar for best director on that other sword and sandal epic of his. I genuinely though that he would pull off another classic, I really did – foolish of me to be so confident perhaps, but this is Ridley Scott we’re talking about, a man whose career achievements almost reads as long as the Bible itself. So what did go wrong then? Let’s take a look.

Kingdom of Heaven: Special Edition (2 Discs)
Film
It is the dark ages, the time of the Crusades no less; a world steeped in ancient mythology, with empires rising and falling, and a world where the next hero could be the blacksmith right next door. As it would happen, this is exactly the case. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a simple blacksmith who has lost almost everything, including his family and his faith. Though the religious wars that rage ever on in his world seem almost an age away, Balian gets drawn into them though unforeseen circumstances. He later falls in love, learns the ways of this dark time, and eventually takes up the sword to defend a city against insurmountable odds. From blacksmith to revolutionary leader, sound familiar? I remember a certain Maximus defying an empire when he was merely a slave in a film not completely different from this one. True, many themes and ties from Gladiator make a timely reprise here, though this film is awash with a muddy vision and an almost dreary political narrative, unlike its Roman counterpart. While Gladiator might have been flooded with politics, it certainly wasn’t as flamboyant and under-baked as this.

I don’t really have a problem with how Balian comes to be the man we see toward the end of the film – that is actually quite well set up with the introduction of his father, Godfrey of Ibelin, a powerful knight who has been fighting in the East. It is more to do with the execution of this historical tale, more than anything else. I had more or less the same problems with Oliver Stone’s atrocious Alexander too. Everything is almost fragile and haphazard, and in a way that suggests much of the reality and true-to-life stuff has been axed away – no doubt in favour of the predictable Hollywood mush we are instead treated to. If this is meant to be raw and real, while still abiding by certain rules and terms, then what Scott needed to do was pay more attention to some of the other historical epics out there. His very own Gladiator being a prime example, though I feel Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur would have been a better study.

Kingdom of Heaven: Special Edition (2 Discs)
Kingdom of Heaven has a very “been there, done that” feel to it. Ever since Peter Jackson showed us thousands of Orcs and charging Helm’s Deep in his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, it seems Hollywood has gone crazy to produce films with lots of digital armies in them. And Kingdom of Heaven, not unlike Troy, Alexander, The Alamo and a handful of others like it, fails to come even close to the epic majesty Peter Jackson created. When will the producers realize audiences want substance and emotional integrity to those battles? What we want is a good story, and characters we care for when they are trying to look heroic in the midst of a trillion warriors, not a film that almost solely depends on its wow-factor battles to win us over. This and many other things unfortunately prevent Kingdom of Heaven from being great. With so much attention on weary characters and pretty digital technology, sadly not even the ordinarily amazing Ridley Scott can hold the project together. Orlando Bloom might have given it his all as the lead, and some of the other acting may be noteworthy, but the film is lacking all the main ingredients – all the important ones anyway.

On the positive side however, Kingdom of Heaven is beautifully shot, and for what it’s worth the action segments are relatively well staged and occasionally arouse the senses – just not nearly enough. And, while Scott may have turned in one of his most unaccomplished performances, his camera still has a professional and almost sophisticated subtlety. He might have lost some steam on this film, but he is still Ridley Scott after all. William Monahan’s script is also quite commendable on some levels, but on others it is stifled with uncertainly and feels a little clunky. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams delivers a truly exceptional and rousing score here, and one that is fully able to capture the essence of the time in ways the film itself fails to do. I’d very much like to see this score nominated for an Oscar. This film could have really been something, and the sad part of it is that it has the look and the presentation, just not the integrity and all the other important features needed to become more than just an average affair. Ultimately, that is what Kingdom of Heaven is, an average and totally uninventive ancient war epic. And, it is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you the only place this film is going, is to the wasteland of Hell’s deepest depths.

Kingdom of Heaven: Special Edition (2 Discs)
Video
Presented in the usual 2.35:1 frame Ridley Scott uses in most, if not all of his features, images here look pretty good, though not spectacular. I found the transfer to be quite dark, even during scenes set in broad daylight. Noise on the transfer was also pretty noticeable, but things such as edge enhancement and artefacts were kept to a minimum. On the whole, everything is quite sharp and well defined, but as mentioned above, this is a dark looking image, and this is one of its more obvious flaws in my opinion. Sometimes it is difficult to make out the characters in certain scenes, but fortunately this only occurs a few of times. Other than that, this is one fine looking transfer, with plenty of colour definition and an almost gritty, ancient look to it that’s fantastic.

Audio
With a robust Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtrack to choose from, you can expect to be in for a pretty intense experience once those action scenes heat up. Both the Dolby and DTS options are great, with each offering superbly rich dialogue, LFE and direction audio throughout the entire range. When the action comes crashing onto the screen, you’re really going to feel it though the sub, and I mean feel it! Bass is heavy on this film, perhaps even a little too heavy at times. And once those arrows launch upward into the sky, you will hear them soaring through each speaker as if they were really there. As usual with DTS, the sound tended to be a little richer and a tad crisper than the Dolby soundtrack, though to be honest either will be an excellent choice.

Kingdom of Heaven: Special Edition (2 Discs)
Extras
On the first disc we have an in-movie text feature that will display “Information on the real people and true events depicted in the film” or so the guide informs us. I doubt the authenticity of that statement in full, but from what I can gather at least part of the history appears to be genuine. The last feature on disc one is a Fox inside look at the forthcoming Tristan & Isolade. It runs for about two minutes.

On the second disc, the first feature is entitled ‘Interactive Production Grid’. This opens up a new screen with two selections: ‘How it Works’ and ‘Enter the Grid’. If you enter the first, you are given a brief description of how the feature works, which is quite simple really: you control how the behind-the-screen experience unfolds. You can watch each section from the Directing, Crew or Cast point-of-view, from the Pre, Prod or Post part of the filmmaking process. The grid itself is very easy to navigate and you can easily select new sections with a few quick button presses. If you’d rather just watch all the features in the Interactive Production Grid, simply use the handy ‘Play All’ function.

Back to the main menu and into the documentaries section, we are presented with two options: ‘History vs. Hollywood’ and ‘A&E Movie Real’. The former is a forty-five minute documentary covering all aspects of the historical findings and such. The latter is similar, only this one interviews much of the cast and crew of the film instead, and shows how they tried to make it as historically accurate as possible. Finally, there is a series of short internet featurettes and the full theatrical trailer.

Kingdom of Heaven: Special Edition (2 Discs)
Overall
Kingdom of Heaven is one of those films that will forever have a bittersweet aroma. It could truly have been one of the great sword and sandal epics, but its stumbles are anything but few and far between. It is a muddy film, unsure of itself and its abilities. Dealing with the subject matter, it almost seems to have been a little too occupied trying not to offend Christians or Muslims, than focusing on historical accuracy and telling a good, dramatic tale. Shame really, I was hopeful in Ridley Scott to do something marvellous again, but sadly he missed the mark with this one. The DVD is pretty solid though, offering a good, if not great transfer; heavy, robust audio, and plenty of special features. You won’t get bored with the DVD, but you probably will with the film.


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