Orlando Bloom first appears in the cross-and-crescent epic Kingdom of Heaven wielding a hammer. As the grieving Balian, a French blacksmith whose wife committed suicide following childbirth, he's angry. But you'd never know it from the way he strains pounding a piece of steel. His blows aren't very forceful.
Casting a hulking body-builder type with coarse facial features isn't called for. Yet if Bloom isn't credible as a blacksmith, can he convince as a medieval warrior? In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he had a bow and arrow and androgynous, elfin powers. In Troy, he played a coward. Bulked up some for Heaven, Bloom still lacks the masculine physicality of Russell Crowe in Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator, which may be why there's only one brief, beefcake shot.
Turns out it doesn't matter. Balian is a hero who imposes his will using reason, ingenuity, and diplomacy. His pre-battle speech is an essay in comparative religion. He engineers a sophisticated military operation, and skillfully negotiates a political solution. Balian has more in common with Peter O'Toole’s T.E. Lawrence.
No, the major pitfall of the static Kingdom of Heaven is that the action is overshadowed by a modern attitude toward religion -- a concerted effort by screenwriter William Monahan and Scott to be simultaneously ecumenical and skeptical about faith. They vilify anyone who refers to God's will: greedy, war-mongering Christians and Muslims who justify their actions by hiding behind Divine Providence. While Bloom's solemn man of the people (a Defender of all Faiths) upholds the vision of a peaceful, tolerant city -- hence the Kingdom of Heaven -- that stands on a humanitarian foundation with no reference to organized religion or theology.
After being recruited by his nobleman father (an excellent Liam Neeson), the bastard Balian quickly learns to fight and sets out for Jerusalem to expiate his sins. He seeks forgiveness for himself and redemption for his wife's soul. Circa 1184, the Holy Land is enjoying an interval of peace between the Second and Third Crusades. Ruled by the magnanimous King Baldwin, it appears to be the vacation spot of the medieval world; a melting pot where the three Abrahamic religions exists in harmony. In short order, Balian succeeds his father, inherits his lands, and defends the city of Jerusalem from a long, violent siege.
Historical accuracy aside, the attack on religious fanaticism seems inspired by current events. A contemporary viewpoint can't be avoided, but in this case it drains the narrative of momentum. You're made to think about the historical animosity between Islam and the West, centering on Jerusalem and the Holy land, yet no mention is made of Jews. Even though the Saracens lay siege to Jerusalem, Muslims come off slightly better. Following the climactic battle, their leader Saladin (the outstanding Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) picks up an overturned crucifix and sets it upright. Just in case you questioned his respect for traditions of other faiths.
Focusing more on Balian's personal transformation from believer to skeptical Knight of the People might have helped. His goal is to protect the innocents of Jerusalem, whatever their religious or ethnic background. His doubt and disillusionment aren't investigated. When did he lose his faith? Of course he didn't according to the movie; his decent, humanitarian impulses represent true faith.
Contributing to the overall stasis, there's a dearth of exoticism. With the exception of Baldwin being a leper king, nothing really seizes the imagination. His scene reprimanding a bloodthirsty nobleman is the dramatic highlight. Balian is a bland moderate and little is made of his romance with Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). As Baldwin's advisor, Jeremy Irons offers the pragmatic voice of tolerance and reason, but makes a swift exit before the battle.
All the meticulously staged violence and bloodshed makes it impossible to accept Kingdom of Heaven as a pacifist tract, although the futility of war is referenced in an exchange between Saladin and Balian where Jerusalem is said to mean "nothing and everything." Is this relativism or realpolitik?
Scott mixes blood and dirt effortlessly and it's hard to quibble with the production values, but there's no zing to the action. A choir chimes in any time we're supposed to be transported heavenward and the climactic battle scene is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Moviegoers may be rooting for the wall of Jerusalem to come tumbling down by that point because they're inured to epic violence.
Combining the violence of Gladiator with the topicality of Black Hawk Down, Scott's crusade to reconcile Christian and Muslim and bring peace to the Middle East blunts the impact of his moviemaking skills.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for strong violence and epic warfare. )