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MOVIE REVIEW

Far from 'Heaven'

Historically and heroically challenged 'Kingdom' fails to conquer

First things first. ''Kingdom of Heaven," director Ridley Scott's return to the sword-and-sandals genre he revived with ''Gladiator," is nowhere near as entertaining as that 2000 film. It's also nowhere near as awful as the inert bores that followed ''Gladiator" into theaters -- the wooden ''Troy" and the demented ''Alexander." It is, instead, a mostly lumbering, occasionally rousing epic that walks a bizarre line between historical fact and Hollywood wishful thinking.

More than anything, this often fascinatingly confused Crusades epic lacks a leading man with the stature to put it over. Audiences know Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe is their friend. Orlando Bloom is no Russell Crowe.

To be fair, Bloom is not actively bad as Balian of Ibelin, a French blacksmith who becomes the defender of 12th-century Jerusalem against religious fanatics of all stripes. The face that launched a million adolescent sighs as Legolas in ''The Lord of the Rings" is handsome and sincere; he reads his lines well and tosses a sword like a man trained in the finest fencing academies of Brentwood. He is not unlikable. But he seems like a man holding the fort for a genuine star who never arrives.

Well, Liam Neeson does turn up early on as Godfrey of Ibelin, a Crusader returning from the Holy Land seeking his bastard son. We know Godfrey is manly because he talks about fighting for two days with an arrow through his testicle the way you or I might talk about a hangnail. Coming upon Balian shortly after the younger man has lost his beloved wife to suicide -- Bloom expresses grief by staring into the middle distance and working up a brow furrow -- Godfrey tells his heir to follow him to Jerusalem. The directions aren't quite ''take a right at Italy," but they're close.

By the time Balian makes it across the Mediterranean, he has been knighted, de-fathered, and shipwrecked; if screenwriter William Monahan had locusts up his sleeve, he'd throw them in, too. Luckily, by the time Balian journeys across the desert to the Holy Land, he has shown his bravery and compassion to the infidel in ways that will pay off nicely down the line.

Here is where ''Kingdom of Heaven" gets extra wiggy, and not just because Scott's Jerusalem inexplicably has snow-capped mountains looming in the far distance. Some history: After the First Crusade, Christians held the city for 88 years. The movie's main narrative concerns the successful campaign of the Muslim leader Salah al-Din, a.k.a. Saladin (Syrian actor-director Ghassan Massoud), to bring it back under Arab control. There followed six more crusades over the centuries and, ''Kingdom" correctly implies, a struggle to control this living religious symbol that continues to this day.

However, the movie offers the extremely curious notion that, under the European conquerors of the First Crusade, Jerusalem was a shining, democratic city on a hill -- a kingdom of fair play and amicable relations between the differing faiths. It was a place where religious fanaticism has been conquered by social tolerance and where, Godfrey promises his son, ''You are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be."

That's right: Jerusalem is America. Or, rather, the ideological America of blue states and pious Hollywood producers. The openhearted Balian fits right in, befriending the leprous King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton under a dime-store tin mask) and his adviser Tiberias (Jeremy Irons, playing a heroic variation on Scar from ''The Lion King"). All three want to preserve the delicate peace, as do the approaching Saladin and other Arab nobles before their hands are forced.

Against them are the foaming fundamentalists of either side, including Knights Templar Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), the former sneering, the latter doing a mincing little dance in one scene as if he didn't know the cameras were rolling. The priests are even worse, urging the infidel slain without mercy, then suggesting a quick conversion to Islam when the chips are down. The Saracens have their fanatics as well, but at least they're well groomed, since the filmmakers are desperate to avoid even a hint of Arab-bashing.

Granted, this results in a refreshingly evenhanded portrayal of Muslims for a mass-market movie: As charismatically played by Massoud, Saladin is a past master of Middle Eastern detente. Something tells me evangelical Christians won't be quite as pleased.

(Where are the Jews, by the way? In point of fact, they were exiled from their own city by the Crusaders until Saladin permitted them to return later. For all the movie cares, they're in Boca.)

In the middle of all this is the king's sister and Guy's wife, Sibylla (Eva Green, the hotsy-totsy from Bertolucci's ''The Dreamers"), who takes one look at Balian and tosses her wimple to the breeze. ''Kingdom of Heaven" gives the two a pro forma love-making scene, but its heart is in the rhetoric of doomed 12th-century civil libertarianism and in the splendors of digital war-making.

Thus the back half of the movie is one titanic battle after another, the details of which had the historically minded critic in the row next to me cringing in agony. Crossbows 400 years before they were invented? It is to laugh. Worse, to my mind, are the unreal-looking CGI backdrops. Whether it's Mordor or Troy or Jerusalem, Hollywood movies now always give us the same damn war: ahistorically bombastic, drunk on slo-mo flaming arrows, shrouded in computerized storm clouds. But you pay $8.50, you expect mass destruction, and when it's not preaching tolerance, ''Kingdom of Heaven" delivers.

In the end, though, the movie's well-intentioned message of peace and good will seems absurdly naive the moment you leave the theater and pick up a newspaper. The Crusades continue today, of course, as unyielding and bloody-minded on both sides as ever, but to really address that, the filmmakers would have to speak more than the language of movie cliches, historical fibs, and Civics 101 platitudes.

''If this is the kingdom of heaven, let God do with it what he wills," says Balian toward the end. Unfortunately, God will have to wait until Ridley Scott is finished.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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