Thursday, May 25, 2006

DVD Review: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut

DVD Review
Kingdom of Heaven
4 Disc Director's Cut

Sir Ridley Scott is a director who’s no stranger to studio interference. Two of his better known films, Blade Runner, and Legend were victimized during their original release, Blade Runner’s original intentions were all but destroyed by meddling producers who had fired Ridley and locked him out of the editing room, while Legend was severely cut by Scott’s own hand when he caved to self doubt and studio pressure. In the interceding years, Scott’s stock in Hollywood would rise, both films would be revisited, in their original forms, Ridley would father the term “Director’s Cut” as we envision it today, and with critically acclaimed work like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down to his credit, one would think he would be left to freely create without studio interference. Yet, in 2004, 20th Century Fox delivered a mandate, Ridley’s latest work, Kingdom of Heaven, was to be no longer than 2 and a half hours. Fearing the backlash that had hit longer “pseudo-epics” like Troy or Alexander, Fox had impressed upon Scott that the film was not to be the sprawling epic he had envisioned. The resultant film, while certainly competently executed, was missing some important bits, particularly in the first act, that ultimately resulted in mixed opinions of the film overall. Kingdom of Heaven was taken to task mainly for its lack of character development, and the relative weakness of its lead actor, and neither was truly an outlandish critique. What many didn’t realize, was that Ridley’s original cut of the film ran near a full hour longer, the vast majority of which was actually character oriented, and thankfully that version has made its way onto DVD, and even more miraculous, this version of the film is quite possibly the most effective and redeeming of Ridley’s director’s cuts, taking a passable period-action piece with heavy religious and philosophical overtones, and turning it into a truly classic character-driven epic, the likes of which Hollywood hasn’t seen since David Lean in his prime.

Kingdom of Heaven, in its theatrical incarnation, was a window into the tumultuous world of Christian and Muslim during the fragile peace that existed between the second and third Crusades. It truly did a splendid job of weaving us in and out of this fantastical world of chivalry and treachery, with Balian, a meek blacksmith thrust (a little too swiftly) into nobility, as our tour guide. The film was largely about events, people, places, and encounters with all manner of individual. The Director’s cut is a completely different animal, a human story focused tightly on two people. This story belongs to Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith with a background in engineering, mourning the loss of a wife to suicide, and Sybilla (Eva Green), sister to the leprous king Baldwin of Jerusalem, and to what ends she will go to keep “her” vision of Jerusalem alive. When Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) returns from the crusades in search of an illegitimate son, the road leads to Balian’s door. Balian is offered a chance at redemption for his sins, as well as those of his wife, by joining his newfound Father and his band of knights on crusade to Jerusalem. Events force Balian’s hand, and he eventually finds himself alone in the east, newly named the Baron of Ibelin, and caught up in the cat and mouse game played between the Christian and Muslim armies. On one side, King Baldwin (Edward Norton), the leper king, concealed behind a silver mask, and his sword hand, Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), on the other side, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), warrior poet and King of the Muslims, and his commander, Nasir (Alexander Siddig). Add to this, a faction of Templar knights who want nothing more than all out war, led by the bloodthirsty Guy De Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and the wildly insane Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), and stuck in the middle, Balian and his men, as well as his “spiritual guide” of sorts, Hospitaler (David Thewlis), Sybilla, and her son. Over time, Balian experiences much, the ins and outs of the volatile political landscape, and by the end, he will have emerged a changed man.

What screenwriter William Monahan does so brilliantly, and part of what makes Kingdom of Heaven such an effective picture in my mind, is the way in which both Christian and Muslim are portrayed. We see both the best and worst of both armies, the striving for peaceful co-existence, and the mad fervor that enthralls those who would kill or conquer in the name of their chosen God. Neither Christian nor Muslim is given preferential treatment, though it would be fair to say that the Templar Knights are portrayed as blindly warmongering savages. We want to see Saladin conquer Jerusalem just as badly as we want to see Balian defend it from conquest. Where the director’s cut triumphs absolutely is in the way that it carries this unflinching focus to the characters as well as the creeds, Balian is painted in broad strokes, far removed from the shallow vessel he was in the theatrical cut, we learn much about his character, and the breathing room given to development in the first act, makes his transition from Blacksmith to Noble that much more believable. Orlando’s performance is enhanced greatly; we get a much deeper look at how his mind functions, and how he deals with the foreign surroundings. Instead of fitting his new world like a glove, he feels much more like an outsider in this Eastern world, constantly observing and analyzing. He’s a much more calculating personality, and yet he also appears much warmer. Godfrey also benefits, his relationship with Balian is enhanced, and his past in France is somewhat elaborated upon, which makes events in the first act make that much more sense. Michael Sheen’s sniveling Priest is revealed to have a much more critical role in Balian’s past, and several characters appear in the first act that weren’t even present in the theatrical cut. When we reach Jerusalem, again, pretty much every character is emphasized. The story never really shifts focus entirely from Balian, but it really becomes Sybilla’s story at this point. We learn that she has a son, who will inherit the throne when Baldwin passes on. This element adds a GREAT deal to the story, many of the political happenings of the theatrical cut may have been foggy initially, but the revelation of Baldwin’s heir draws them into crystal clarity. Guy De Lusignan and Reynald also pick up some extra character moments which enhance their previously established qualities, Lusignan appears that much more bloodthirsty and cruel, and Reynald that much more insane. Jeremy Iron’s Tiberius remains largely unchanged, but is played magnificently. At any rate, any issues with weak links in casting is rendered irrelevant in the director’s cut, the cast is universally as perfect as any could ask for, Orlando Bloom and Eva Green benefit the most, for such young and inexperienced actors they put on magnificent performances, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, and Jeremy Irons all bring their “A” games, and Martin Csokas, David Thewlis, and Brendan Gleeson all perform amazingly well. Worth special mention is Ghassan Massoud, making his English-speaking debut. This man holds the screen like very few, he has a majesty and a charisma that steals every scene he’s in.

On the production side of things, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Arthur Max brings his considerable talents as a production designer to bear, and outdoes the splendid work he had done on Gladiator. Very few directors, living or dead have shown the ability to create a completely self contained and ultimately believable world within the confines of a specific film to the degree that Ridley Scott has throughout his career, and Kingdom of Heaven is no exception. Direction is typically Ridley, beautiful visuals combined with some of the single finest shot composition you will ever see. Here, neither the director’s cut nor the theatrical version really differ significantly– the film is skillfully shot and mounted all around, though the director’s cut does appear to have been digitally graded for a slightly more saturated look. Some have complained about Ridley’s combat scenes, I found them to be exhilarating, and no where near as frantic or hyper kinetic of those in other films of this nature (Lord of the Rings for example). Ridley does employ some over-cranking camera effects and slow motion, but it adds style and finesse to the scenes of carnage, and is never overplayed or over edited to the point that it becomes incomprehensible or overly chaotic. The siege on Jerusalem in particular, is a breathtaking sequence that rivals the most epic of sequences (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ “Helm’s Deep” sequence for example). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful score by Harry Gregson-Williams.

Scott Free, in collaboration with Charles De Lauzirika, have been responsible for some of the finest DVD sets around. Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut is no exception. This 4-disc set includes the full director’s cut of the film, including Overture, Intermission, and Entr’acte, spread across two discs. The other two discs include an all encompassing documentary entitled The Path to Redemption, a feature length look at every aspect of the films production, from its early start during the folding of Tripoli, another Scott project that was set to star Russell Crowe, to it’s premiere on three separate continents and the creation of the director’s cut. Theatrical trailers and TV spots are present in a comprehensive promotional gallery that also includes some 200 plus poster concepts from various territories. Three commentary tracks are included, one with Ridley, Orlando Bloom, and William Monahan, a second with executive producer Lisa Ellzey, effect supervisor Wesley Sewell, and assistant director Adam Somner, and a third commentary featuring editor Dody Dorn. Also tucked away on each disc are additional featurettes, and photo galleries that will take hours to fully explore. Picture and sound for the discs are exemplary, pure reference quality goods. This is an all encompassing package, a solid film made truly exemplary, elevated to classic status, truly one of Ridley Scott’s absolute best works, a plethora of quality bonus materials, and all wrapped up in a wonderful package. It’s a must own for fans of period epics, or epic filmmaking in general.

Film 5 (out of 5)

DVD 5 (out of 5)


Mitch said...

Took you long enough.

I ain't reading it until I've watched the flick (hopefully Sunday), but it still took you long enough. ;)

SteveTP said...

man, I had a busy day! Started writing the thing at leas tthree times and would get interrupted ;)

Mitch said...

This job would be great if it weren't for the fucking customers. ;)

SteveTP said...

True dat! :)Doesn't help that the damned work computron kept locking on me yesterday either.

Jondre the GianT said...

Man, I never really wanted to see this movie, to be honest with you. But the way that you present it here, I might have to take a look at this new-fangled directors cut!

SteveTP said...

You really should - it's #4 on my personal best of all time list man! It's that good!

Crap, now i've oversold it ;)

Mitch said...

#4? You mean it bumpbed Suspiria down a notch? ;)

Mitch said...

Just got my Smokey and the Bandit SE. DTS, bud!

SteveTP said...


I actually grabbed about 8 movies on the cheap today. Nothing exemplary, and one or two that are kinda embarassing ;)

Have three more i'm picking up tomorrow i think. The Corrupter (based on a few kind words over at the verdict), King Arthur: DC (if it got swords, i'm down, and Star Wars Episode III (To fill out the collection if nothing else - And Sarah still really wants to see it)

Pickin em up used.

Just finished showing Johnny Z a bit of the Kingdom Director's cut - he's sold! :)

Mitch said...

I actually grabbed about 8 movies on the cheap today. Nothing exemplary, and one or two that are kinda embarassing ;)

Come on, man, don't leave me hanging!

And go to the Release News section of the Jury Room--pronto!

SteveTP said...

Blade Runner news is always good news :)

the 8 i bought:

Eight Legged Freaks
The Producers (original)
Dukes of Hazzard (groan)
The Longest Yard (remake - groan again)
Sixteen Candles
Century Hotel
AC DC Family Jewels
AC DC Live at Donnington

I think there were a few more too actually - just bought a bunch of stuff off of a guy for about 15 bucks.

Mitch said...

Hell, I woulda taken that haul for fifteen bucks.

SteveTP said...

i don't feel soo bad then, i have to admit, i've been kinda wanting to see both the Dukes and The Longest Yard.

And man, I picked up Police Academy the other day, that movie is hysterical ;)

Dunnyman's Castle said...

seeing as how the theatrical release was just horrible, I may have to snag this and take a look....I kept thinking "It COULD be good"

SteveTP said...

Totally different beast!

Now i liked the theatrical cut, but this annihilates it!