""Peace instead of war, love instead of hate. That is what lies at the end of Crusade."" You may have heard these words down your local multiplex, voiced in tremulous tones by Liam Neeson during the Kingdom Of Heaven trailer, and if you're like us here at Total Film, you would have totally ignored them, wallowing instead in the tantalising snippets of sword-swinging spectacle Ridley Scott dangled in our faces. Horses racing across the desert, armies stretching into the horizon, catapults flinging fiery death into the night sky - - how could it possibly fail?
We should have listened more closely: peace instead of war; love instead of hate. And for huge swathes of his $130 million Crusades epic, that's exactly what the director gives us. Instead of chronicling one of the most turbulent periods of world history, a time when Christian soldiers from all over Europe descended on the Holy Land for the mother of all scraps, Sir Ridley delivers a heartfelt plea for religious harmony and tolerance. It's an important message and a timely one. But it's not what we expect to hear from a summer blockbuster, especially one that's effectively being sold as Gladiator 2.
Don't get us wrong - - there's plenty to get the blood racing here. No sooner has Neeson's war-weary baron invited bastard son Orlando Bloom back to Jerusalem than they are set upon by a posse of crossbow-wielding soldiers. Bloom's sea voyage is rudely interrupted by a shipwreck and he's already offed one handy Arabian warrior before he makes it past the gates. The problem is that the extravagant running time - (two-and-a-half hours, people!) - means such undisputed high points are separated by yawning chasms of blah, filled with pompously reverential dialogue and repetitive argy-bargy between the doves (Edward Norton's masked ruler, Jeremy Irons' cynical general) and the hawks (Marton Csokas' ambitious Templar and his psycho cohort Brendan Gleeson).
The love interest doesn't help matters either, Bloom striking few sparks with Eva Green's exotic but strangely lifeless Princess Sibylla. But perhaps the biggest weakness is Orly himself. Balian is supposed to be a tormented soul desperately seeking redemption in this world or the next. How does the Bloomer convey existential dilemma? By frowning. The character is also frustratingly passive, always at the mercy of events, while his rabble-rousing speech to Jerusalem's battered citizens (""Arise a knight!"") is just plain embarrassing.
Ridley pulls out all the stops at the end with an awe-inspiring orgy of blazing tar, zinging arrows and siege towers advancing on crumbling walls. It's a suitably eye-popping finale, but one so long in coming that Kingdom Of Purgatory might've been a more fitting title.