Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Look Back at One of the Most Underated Films of the Decade...

Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut

First a caveat: I love Ridley Scott. Alien is one of my favorite films. I think Blade Runner is arguably the best science fiction film ever made. I loved Matchstick Men and I think Black Hawk Down is one of the most well constructed and believable depictions of combat I've ever seen. I unabashedly love Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Is it profound? Deep? An artistic masterwork? Not exactly... But it sure is one of the most exciting, compelling and well made epics I've ever seen. Russell Crowe's General Maximus is one of the most bad ass characters in motion picture history. Joaquin Phoenix is delightfully sinister, without chewing the scenery, as the evil emperor Commodus. All of the supporting players, from Connie Nielsen to Djimon Hounsou, are well cast and well played. So I was understandably fired up for his next epic: Kingdom of Heaven.

I was a bit surprised by his casting of Orlando Bloom as Kingdom's epic hero. I was uninspired by his work in Troy or Pirates of the Caribbean. Further, while I liked him as Legolas in Lord of the Rings I didn't exactly see that as the springboard for greatness and for suitability for a real starring role as such a strong character. I remember reading a few weeks before the film's release that studio executives were uncomfortable with Ridley Scott's cut of the film (clocking in at nearly 3 1/2 hours) and had the film chopped down to reach a somewhat less intimidating 145 minute runtime with the eventual intention of releasing Scott's cut on DVD.

I saw the film opening night with my father in a surprisingly empty theater. Bloom's performance in the film left me feeling vindicated in my initial doubts. While many supporting characters came off well, especially Liam Neeson in a far too small role and also Jeremy Irons and Alexander Siddig, I thought Bloom's Bailin was horribly underdeveloped. He seemed weak and his leadership ability seemed merely a function of plot requirement rather than a genuine strength of character. When Bailin delivers his penultimate speech for the defense of Jerusalem I felt like I would someday be seeing the scene on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Beyond that Eva Green's Sibylla seemed to be a nearly broken character, whose motivations made no sense. Liam Neeson disappeared far too soon and without clear intentions. I left the theater not just disappointed but angry that the film had let me down so bitterly.

Roughly a year after the film's release the once mentioned Director's Cut was finally released on DVD. Having heard numerous stories of studios tinkering with movies I was curious to see what Scott had meant to bring to the screen. His own Blade Runner had initially had a happy ending and a voiceover forced upon it by a box office leery studio. Boy am I glad I purchased the movie.

Everything about the film is refined and improved. Michael Sheen, so good in Stephen Frears' The Queen most recently, has a fully realized character almost entirely crafted in the film's reworked opening segments. Previously it had been a mystery how the hell Balian the blacksmith somehow became a monster in combat. Here his history in feudal combat is revealed through conversation with the men who follow his father, Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson, who felt so underutilized and, to some extent, forced in the theatrical version, delivers a wonderful performance that really works and helps bring our hero into this far more epic world. The film's first 40 minutes or so tell the same thing that took only 20 or so minute in the theatrical cut, yet here it feels compelling, exciting and moving.

Eva Green, undercut to the role of 'love interest' in the theatrical version, has a real character to work with here and she is wonderful in the new material. Even smaller characters such as Kevin McKidd's soldier role (who, by the way, was wonderful in the lead of HBO's Rome) feel more effective. Edward Norton's leper king, who feels held back by the leper mask in the theatrical version, feels like a more tragic character here. A subtle reworking of the film's wonderful score helps throughout. In this version when Bloom speaks there is simply more feels as though this character is the man we are meant to see him as. His speech to the people of Jerusalem comes off as passionate and inspirational here. All of this is earned by the wonderful 45 or so minutes reworked into the film. It's a remarkable thing when adding nearly an hour to a movie (the same thing happened with Wolfgang Peterson's Troy Director's Cut though not to as great effect as here) can actually make it feel like a much smoother experience.

I hesitate to speak too much of the film's plot so as not to ruin what a great experience it is, but I can't recommend it highly enough. While it isn't perfect (the combat editing can be so hectic that it occasionally either fails to be completely cohesive or can be difficult to follow, as is common for the genre and Brendan Gleeson comes off a bit hammy), it's one of the best epics I've ever seen. Orlando Bloom is great here. The supporting players are (pretty much) all extremelly strong. If only the studio had released this film I think it might have seen some well deserved Oscar nominations...

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