Hollywood deals briskly in rudimentary stereotypes and exaggerated conflicts, but every so often it experiences a pang of conscience. These are usually about as profound as Rodney King’s postriot plea of “Can’t we all just get along?”—but then conceptual simplicity is a cardinal major-studio virtue. Because King didn’t pitch his question for a script treatment, Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis has done it for him with Crash. So, for that matter, have Ridley Scott and William Monahan, director and writer, respectively, of Kingdom of Heaven. That the latter two relocated their investigation of cross-cultural tension to 12th-century Jerusalem is hardly a problem.
There’s ample precedent in Scott’s previous work for Kingdom of Heaven, whose climax is the attempt of Frankish noble Balian (Orlando Bloom) to hold Jerusalem against the massive armies of legendary Kurdish warrior Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). The director has choreographed blends of culture clash, costume drama, and hand-to-hand combat on numerous occasions, most recently in Gladiator, which was altogether ridiculous, and Black Hawk Down, which was more sober yet notably one-sided in its depiction of strife between Westerners and Muslims. Here he makes partial amends for both movies.
In the age of Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld, any film about the Crusades is sure to be controversial, but Kingdom of Heaven is not really looking for trouble. It’s set nearly a century after the Franks’ brutal conquest of Jerusalem, and it goes easy on the European invaders’ most infamous crimes, such as their butchery of Jews, Muslims, and even Eastern Christians. Balian is presented not as a Christian fanatic but as a lapsed believer whose only crusade is the knightly obligation to protect the weak and innocent. The Westerners’ adversary is Saladin, whose reputation for chivalry was hailed on both sides of the war.
Balian, Saladin, and many of the other characters are historical—or at least their names are. But so much of their personalities and so many of their actions are fictional that it’s hardly worth trying to locate the few facts in the mix. Kingdom of Heaven opens in the Shire—or rather, a picturesque bit of what will later become France—where Balian is a humble blacksmith. Stunned by his young child’s death and his wife’s subsequent suicide, the smith is outraged when he sees that an unscrupulous priest (one of several in the tale) has stolen the cross from around his dead spouse’s neck. He pushes the cleric into a fire, producing the first of many blazing humans. Killing a priest is a bad rap in 12th-century Christendom, but Balian has just met his biological dad, Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who offers to take him to Jerusalem. Godfrey dies straightaway, and Balian is soon shipwrecked on the Judean shore, left to establish himself in the Holy Land by his own courage and ingenuity. This, of course, he promptly does.
Jerusalem is ruled by the physically weak Baldwin (Edward Norton), who wears an engraved mask to hide the ravages of leprosy. Baldwin has a shrewd adviser, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), who ultimately proclaims himself “ashamed” of the Crusades, as well as a kinky sister, Sibylla (Eva Green, The Dreamers’ kinky sister). She’s quick to make out with Balian, but she’s married to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who along with Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) represents the Christian hardliners. They want a war—and get it. Balian—fighting to protect the diverse inhabitants of Jerusalem, not for a God he no longer accepts—is spiritually aligned with his father’s unnamed comrade (David Thewlis), a member of the Hospitalers (a group similar to the better-known Knights Templar). “Holiness is in right action,” says the Hospitaler, coming a lot closer to Buddhism than you might expect in Crusader-ruled Jerusalem.
Theology and pyrotechnics are among the movie’s less convincing aspects. The final assault on Jerusalem features flaming pitch and “Greek fire,” which here seem indistinguishable from napalm. Generally, however, Scott’s use of CGI has improved substantially since 2000’s Gladiator, and the dialogue also seems less artificial. Fundamentally, the film’s depiction of its time and place is absurd, yet from moment to moment it doesn’t seem so. Much less silly than either Troy or Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven tends to temper spectacle with skepticism.
Keeping one’s head in the midst of making a $130 million historical epic is no small accomplishment, and Scott’s surprisingly well-realized film can readily be recommended to those who enjoy the genre (and accept its inherent flaws). For those who don’t thrill to sieges, sword fights, and cavalry charges, however, Kingdom of Heaven may seem misguided. But perhaps it’s simply dislocated: Wouldn’t Scott and Monahan’s multicultural worldview and post-religious philosophy—and their film’s panoramic meld of Celtic, Persian, Egyptian, and Hollywood music—dwell more comfortably in Southern California?
Well, maybe not. According to Crash, everyone there hates everyone else, and for the most basic of reasons. Paul Haggis’ directorial debut is a blood-simple, contemporary– Los Angeles version of La Ronde, motivated by racism rather than sex. Inspired by a carjacking that Haggis and his wife suffered more than a decade ago, the movie introduces a succession of characters, most of them in pairs, who will either injure or rescue each other, or sometimes both. If the injuries are mostly perfunctory, the rescues are downright laughable.
Carjackers Anthony and Peter (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate) snatch the SUV of image-conscious L.A. district attorney Rick and his miserable wife, Jean (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), initiating a series of events that involve LAPD detectives and sometime lovers Graham and Ria (Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito), uniformed cops Ryan and Hanson (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe), TV director Cameron and his wife (Terence Howard and Thandie Newton), as well as a Mexican-American locksmith, an Iranian-American shopkeeper, some briefly glimpsed people of various Asian heritages, and all their respective families. (Oh yeah, and Tony Danza.)
Some of these people want to use each other for political or financial gain. Others can think of nothing but their hatred and fear of those of divergent origins, creeds, or appearances. Attempts to humanize a few of the more egregious characters suggest that the bitter-minded will do good if it’s part of their training, while the kindhearted would just as soon shoot you. Even Ku Klux Klan members probably have more complicated motivations than the tiresome characters depicted by this array of underemployed bit players.
Cheadle, who’s also one of the film’s producers, is assigned the task of explaining the sociological premise in voice-over. “In L.A., nobody touches,” he intones. “We crash into each other just so we can feel something.” This is metaphor, of course, although it recalls the recent trend of intertwined-fate flicks—including Amores Perros, Antares, and 21 Grams—that turn on an actual collision. One defining automotive event wouldn’t be enough, however, for Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco. They include a few crashes, several car- and vanjackings, an abusive police stop, and one very unpleasant instance of hitchhiking. If anyone in L.A. takes Crash seriously, it should do wonders for bus and rail ridership.
Crude, heavy-handed, and manipulative at every turn, the movie is basically Magnolia for morons. Haggis and Moresco provide the occasional humorous exchange, but their comic dialogue is strictly stand-up material, not words that any actual sentient being would say to another. At least this disaster clearly establishes that Haggis was not the auteur of Million Dollar Baby, a film that took care to humanize its clichés. Instead, Crash attempts to demonize them, making the classic new-Hollywood mistake of confusing hostility with honesty. It would have been apt for Cheadle to simply borrow his voice-over commentary from Repo Man: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”CP