Taken 2

Luc Besson brings back the ultimate 60-year-old preventer, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), last seen gunning through Paris hunting down the sex-trafficking Albanians that kidnapped his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). He saved her of course, but because Bryan killed so many men, the families belonging to the pile of dead bodies want revenge.  So much so that they are willing to dispatch more of their cold-blooded killer family members to go after Bryan, Maggie, and Bryan’s ex-wife, Lenny (Famke Janssen) while on vacation in Instabul.

Bryan may fend off more Albanians for the Luc Besson-produced cash-grab sequel Taken 2, but the film ignores the whole ticking-clock kidnapping angle that made the first film suspenseful.  Taken was no masterpiece, but it was wholly effective.  Taken 2 approaches the idea of a follow-up in a semi-interesting way—rather than rehashing his daughter’s kidnapping—Mills must fight vengeful pursuers that abduct him and his ex-wife, while his daughter’s safety also hangs over hot coals.  There’s no 4-day deadline.  The problem?  The change doesn’t work.

By the midway point, Taken 2 is a painful slog to watch.  Keep in mind, this is only a 90-minute movie.  The filmmakers simply have no idea what to do with the narrative.  Mills and Lenny get kidnapped.  Kim—believe it—must rescue her parents.  Then Mills must leave his wife behind to save his daughter.  Then Mills has to return and save his wife.  The villains exist to be villains.  The chases exist for chasing’s sake.  The gunplay and fistfights occur because they are expected to.  The filmmakers throw in obstacles—such as the slight slitting of Lenore’s throat and her being hung upside down with only 30 minutes to live—in an attempt to give the film its predecessor’s sense of urgency.  But the obstacles are quickly resolved.

Rather than Mills having the singular forward momentum of the previous film, he runs around Instabul in a strained back-and-forth pursuit.  The editing doesn’t help matters either.  Director Olivier Megaton is notorious for having an obnoxiously sloppy visual style.  You can’t understand any of the action’s choreography—and it looks about as atrocious as his previous efforts Colombiana and Transporter 3.  Mr. Megaton, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want.  But if you come back for Taken 3, I will not see it.  I will not rent it.  I will not catch it on cable TV.

While this sequel had the opportunity to not be a simple retread by embracing the villain revenge angle, Taken 2 can’t overcome the dumping ground storytelling, directing, and editing.  Poor Liam Neeson is about as engaging and convincing as he was the last time out, but this time even he can’t save us.


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And now for a movie nobody asked for and not many bothered to check out this past weekend—Battleship, based on the classic popular Hasbro board game of the same name. This suffocating bass-thumping bore of a science fiction action picture has been genetically engineered by movie studio heads to replicate the look, feel, and financial success of the Transformers series.  Poor poor Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock), known for his gritty bang-bang panache, seems to have been spearheaded into steering this brain-dead hunk of junk.  Like recent box office bombs John Carter and Prince of Persia, Battleship is a franchise non-starter, not necessarily because of all the dollar signs that are flying far away from the project, but because the film is little more than a dumping ground for loud bangs, awful dialogue, poor storytelling, and flashy special effects.

As much as critics love to hate Director Michael Bay (director of the Transformers films), likely because of his box-office dominance with pure B-movie F/X-tasms, his characters typically have more life than detractors will give him credit for.  He simply lives to take destruction to the max, but at least he typically gets top talent such as Will Smith, Nicolas Cage, and Bruce Willis to do his bidding.  Bay knows what he’s doing and he has capable actors picking up the slack—a lot of the time.  Berg attempts his best Bay impression with Battleship.

The premise of the film involves a 20-something bum named Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) whose brother ends up plopping him in the Navy to shape him up.  Some time later into his service, he’s a hothead with little control and confidence captaining a Destroyer vessel at sea for Naval War Games under the hand of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson).  Shane has a military physical therapist daughter, Sam (Brooklyn Decker) that Hopper wishes to marry if only he could get the courage to ask his would-be father-in-law for his blessing.

Hopper’s in hot water after a confrontation on board the ship with another crewman, and before he gets the boot from the Navy, he must man up when extra terrestrials crash at sea in mega war vessels with the intent of erasing humanity for the usual purposes.  The invasion becomes the ultimate test of leadership for Hopper whose ship becomes trapped under an impenetrable forced field with no entrance or exit.  His crew must literally wage war on the savage aliens before more invaders arrive.

While Berg has a similar knack as Bay for gritty over-the-top action, Battleship doesn’t work partly because it was a bad idea to begin with, and partly because the skid marks on the script aren’t whited out by the actors.  Instead the filmmakers use expensive visual effects as stitches and an ear-banging sound mix as morphine all in an effort to blind our eyes and numb our brains from this bloody mess.  The aliens aren’t given a purpose, and neither are the heroes.  Contrived to the max to ensure that extra-terrestrials in mobile spacecrafts must do battle with the Navy at sea—with only the Navy to stop Earth’s enslavement—the writers wipe away any and all possibilities of other branches of military getting involved.  Why?  Because this is Battleship, that’s why.  And apparently Battleship is about any alien invasion at sea. And it’s also about stupidity, which I could forgive if the film had intended to be stupid.

This is a movie where toothpick pop star Rihanna plays a Navy officer that takes a giant alien-robot-fist to the face and walks away unscathed.  But I think Berg doesn’t take the silliness far enough and neither does his cast as they sleepwalk through their rusty dialogue in between fireballs. Someone try and tell me the movie has any ambition to exist as anything other than a board game property attempting franchise potential.  This left me wondering how it would be possible to do a sequel… Aliens invade again?  Only the Navy can stop them… again?  Even amidst wrecking-ball destruction happening in populated cities?  Doesn’t this whole intended ‘franchise’ seem doomed from that start???

I’m sure eight-year-old boys will find something to like in all this, even though the film lacks any sort of wit, charm, humor, or star charisma that elevated the just-as-bloated and corn-breaded Transformers.  But since audiences would rather be distracted by the far more entertaining Avengers and the sci-fi sequel Men in Black III, I have no doubt Battleship will sink to the memory’s ocean floor in only a few weeks time.

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Rating: 2.5/5 (2 votes cast)

The Grey

THAT’S IT ?!?!?!

I literally shouted those words at the screen when it went black after The Grey. In a full theatre, no less. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up at a night spot by director Joe Carnahan, titillated and swept off my feet with rides in sports cars and parties at private pools, enraptured in building anticipation, only to find out in bed that Carnahan has this … “little problem.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this let down by a movie. Perhaps it is partly my fault for allowing my expectations to get so high. Since our daughter was born, it’s gotten much harder to get to the theater, and last weekend was the first time I had been since the Fourth of July, when I reviewed Green Lantern. But after seeing the trailers, I couldn’t wait to see The Grey. It had all the ingredients for a perfect wilderness adventure:

A group of tough guys who know a thing or two about the out doors (in this case oil-rig workers in Alaska),

A plane crash in a harsh, remote location with little hope of rescue,

A pack of very large, very hungry wolves on the hunt (the trailer made it clear this movie was not afraid of PETA),

and Liam freaking Neeson, who, in the closing seconds of the trailer, is surrounded by wolves. He tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right. The Alpha wolf lunges forward, then Neeson does the same, and we see the title. I was hooked. I knew whatever happened in the moments after Neeson charged that wolf, was going to be AWESOME!

It was the perfect formula: a primal battle! Brain against brawn! Teeth against tools! What could possibly go wrong? I walked into the theatre thinking I might be about to witness the greatest man vs. beast movie since Jaws.

It starts out well enough. The plane goes down in the subarctic tundra, and John Ottway (Neeson) and six other men crawl from the wreckage. Once they pull themselves out of the shock, they begin to build a fire, make a shelter out of the plane and look for food. Their spirits have begun to lift when their dinner around the fire is interrupted by a howl. They stand up to see a huge wolf just inside the campfire light, and a sea of glittering eyes behind it. After a standoff, the wolves retreat into the darkness. A few hours later, a member of the group gets up and actually walks away from the fire to urinate. After what he’s seen, this makes no sense, but whatever; I guess it’s kind of a movie staple. He dies, of course.

The next day, Ottway, the group’s wolf expert , decides that if they can reach a forest some distance away, they could better defend themselves. On the day-long trek through knee-deep snow, they loose one more to the wolves. As night falls, they reach the forest, just as it begins to fill with the dinning and barking of the wolves. They hastily build a fire to keep the wolves at bay, then build four smaller fires to make a perimeter that they can sit inside. Ottway produces five straight branches and five shotgun shells he salvaged from the plane, and begins to instruct the others in making bang sticks to fight the wolves.

Alright. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Out of nowhere, a wolf jumps on John Diaz (Dallas Roberts), despite the fire. There follows a wild flurry of yelling, thrashing, and a couple of loud bangs, presumably bang sticks, and finally, we see Diaz on top of the wolf, thrusting his knife in and out of it. The thing is, we never really saw the fight with the wolf. So far, we’ve had a lot of great buildup and a lot of great suspense. The movie has created an atmosphere where we can never really relax, and the wolves, even when not seen, are always felt. But we really haven’t seen any good action.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

This is where the movie starts to go downhill. Ottway decides for some reason that they have to move, and they go walking through this forest full of wolves in the dark. For some reason, there is never an attack, and they stop at a place where Ottway decides they will be safe. And they build ONE campfire. We’ve already seen how the wolves have become bold enough to enter the circle of fires they made earlier, but all fear of the wolves seems to have flown away for some reason. Even more strangely, the wolves seem to oblige. The next day, the group reaches a canyon and decides to climb across. They manage to attache a rope to a tree on the other side through means very hard to swallow, but whatever, it’s a movie. As the last member of the group (Durmot Mulroney) climbs across, the rope breaks and he swings across, hitting the tree hard and falling to his death. His body is then immediately pounced upon by the wolves, almost as if they were waiting at the base of the tree! Now, how did that happen? How did the wolves climb down one side of the canyon and then up the other? And even then, how did they know exactly where Mulroney was going to fall? And why hadn’t the rest of the group shouted anything to him about wolves at the base of the tree? Why did the wolves magically disappear the night before when it would’ve made sense for them to be attacking, only to reappear in such a ridiculous way here?

Let it go. The climax is going to be awesome.

Neeson poses and never delivers in “The Grey.”

The group presses on, as their number continues to dwindle. Strangely, we never hear a word about the bang sticks after that first campfire in the woods. It sounded like they used one or two during the attack at that point, but they have to have some left. The other reason this doesn’t add up is that, shortly after the plane crash, there is a scene where Ottway is attacked by a wolf. It latches onto his leg, and two other survivors run up and apparently beat the wolf to death with bits of the plane. This confirmed my impression from the trailer and set a good tone for the movie: these are tough guys. Some of them have been in prison; all of them have spent months working an oil rig in Alaska. They’re used to these elements. Even in a situation this bad, they would have a fighting chance. But now, every time the wolves show up, all they can think of to do is run. And as anyone who has spent time around dogs knows, as slim as your odds might be fighting a wolf pack, they’re going to be even slimmer running. When am I going to get what I paid for?

That’s okay. The climax is going to be awesome.

As predicted, Ottway is the last one left alive. Trudging through a clearing with most of his equipment gone, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by wolves. The Alpha advances from the pack. The excitement builds as he empties the contents of a back pack. He kisses a picture of his wife, tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right.

Oh, boy, this is it!

Ottway reaches inside himself and recites a short poem composed by his father. Then we see his eyes, now devoid of fear. The Alpha lunges forward, Ottway does the same, and …

THAT’S IT?!?!?!

I couldn’t believe it, but that was the end. There was nothing of that scene in the movie that wasn’t in the trailer. If fact, I got online when we got home and checked out the trailer again. They actually show you a little bit more in the trailer than they do in the film! Talk about false advertising! Where was my glorious man-wolf battle?? CARNAHAN! You lied to me!

A few hours later, I read that there was one more scene after the credits, in which we see Ottway and the Alpha, both on the ground. The Alpha is apparently dying; Ottway’s condition is harder to determine. Even if I had stayed for this scene, it would have been small consolation. That only means that Carnahan didn’t consider it a forgone conclusion that Ottway had no chance. So why didn’t I get to see him fight?

Anyway, for those of you that are complaining “you spoiled the ending,” I did so because, really, there was no ending. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the ending. All of it. I did you a favor, saving you time and money. And for those of you saying “you missed the point. The wolves are a metaphor for death and the story is really about being brave when death is coming for you …” I can understand that. But this is a movie. It’s based in the visual. What is the point of having a story of internal struggle leading up to a physical confrontation, if you’re not going to show the confrontation — especially when it would have been so simple to do! In Jaws, for example, we still have most of the same themes — over coming your fear, a bond that developes between three very different men when they face death together, etc. But we get the pay-off at the end. We get to see what happens. We get to see the symbol of fear and death destroyed. And even if said symbol had won, it would have been a more satisfying ending than that of The Grey.  And in any case, if all the movie was trying to do was tell a story about philosophical ideals, why was it sold to me as an action/adventure picture?

I can contemplate the meaning of life without buying a ticket, thank you.

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Rating: 1.0/5 (1 vote cast)


You would think it a general rule of thumb not to steal from Liam Neeson, whether it be his daughter or his identity—he will find you and he will kill you.  Europe ain’t getting the message, because Neeson is hunting down its baddies again.

He plays Dr. Martin Harris en route to a biotechnology conference with his wife Liz (January Jones).  After arriving in Berlin, he and his wife take a taxi to their hotel and an important briefcase is left behind.  Martin realizes he’s forgotten it upon arriving at the hotel and decides to grab another cab and head back to retrieve it without so much as a word to his wife.  Bad choice, Doc.  A major car wreck sends Harris’ cab flying into a river and leaving him with a serious head injury.  He wakes up four days later in a hospital without anyone looking for him.  He hurriedly returns to the hotel to reunite with his wife, but there’s a problem: she doesn’t recognize him.  No one knows him.  In fact, there is another man with his wife who claims to be ‘Dr. Martin Harris.’  Is the Doc crazy?  Only the woman who drove his cab (Diane Kruger) and saved his life may be able to help him as he races against his own sanity (and a horde of assassins) to prove his identity.

Here is the short review for those who want a summation before I delve into spoilers: Unknown is a good movie that turns sour—a smart concept and an engaging thriller that takes a turn for Stupidville and never recovers.  Neeson is a commanding lead regurgitating his role from Taken, and the action sequences and mystery thrills deliver most of the time, but none of it helps the dopey turns of the plot.  Readers planning to see this film SHOULD NOT READ ANY FURTHER.

Here’s a film that demands its twists and conclusion to be discussed and examined—not because they’re good, but because they are not good.  If Taken didn’t contain enough similarities to The Bourne Identity, then Unknown makes sure both films are represented in full.  Liam Neeson’s character spends a lot of time chasing loose ends.  After his accident, he has no formal identification, photos, or a cell phone that proves he is himself.  A screenwriter can only conjure up a handful of scenarios to explain the situation.  And in hindering the plot, the screenwriters become desperate to reveal an orchestrated assassination attempt at the middle of everything.  You see, Neeson is an assassin with a severe case of amnesia and when undergoing his head trauma, he wakes from his coma having taken on the identity of his cover ‘Dr. Martin Harris.’  He actually believes he is this fictional person.  The trauma also transforms his personality.  He has now become a warm-blooded humanitarian as opposed to the cold-blooded killer he once was.  His agency sent in a replacement assassin to take over for him, and instead of swiftly killing ‘Harris,’ they try to poison him, capture him, and even go so far as to explain to him his obscure condition.  If that isn’t enough, Neeson’s character returns to the scene at the film’s climax to admit he is an assassin who planted a bomb that could take out an important political figure and he decides to lay waste to his former team members.  Oh, and then he escapes the disaster and takes on a new identity.  I was hoping they would show his face on every news program in the country.  Alas, not to be.

Further developments make the film’s conclusion even more laughable, but I’ll stop here.  Unknown is worth a redbox rental and might as well be a follow-up to Taken, even if it’s not as good.  The big reveal simply makes the plot too large of a grab-bag of holes that can not be explained away in any logical sense.  But, hey, I could watch Neeson, the latest unlikely action star (in his mid-50s!), in this type of role 100 times over before I tired of it.  Take that as you will.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (1 vote cast)

The A-Team

I’m trying to discern how ashamed I should be for enjoying the heck out of this movie.  It’s a ballistic action picture for audiences with limited attention spans, and boy oh boy, does it ever zip along.  “The A-Team” arrives at just the right time to liven things up in a summer full of fallen princes and ugly sex-hounds.  To say Joe Carnahan has made the year’s ‘explosiest’ film would be an understatement.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never seen a single episode of “The A-Team.”  Perhaps it’s better that way, but honestly I don’t know.  Critics seem split down the middle on this movie, and I’m not sure what the core fan base would have to say.  Mr. T claims the film is too violent and full of sex.  Well there is about as much sex in this movie as there is in a family film, but the violence certainly has a high-amperage, even if it’s all cartoonish.  I’m guessing ol’ T-Man still holds a grudge for his absence in the flick.  But let’s talk about what Carnahan has put together.
After a frenetic final bout in “Smokin’ Aces,” Director Joe Carnahan has pulled out all the stops in making “The A-Team” a reality-defying movie full of sensational stunts and shootouts.  His story begins early on and glimpses the Alpha Team’s origins.  Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) must rescue one of his fellow team members, Face Peck (Bradley Cooper) with the help of another former Army Ranger, BA Baracus (Quinton Jackson).  Following the success of the rescue, the three team up with a lunatic pilot named Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and they become the ultimate mercenary team “specializing in the ridiculous.”  In a mission gone wrong , another military unit has managed to steal currency engraving plates and frame the A-Team for counterfeiting and murder.  All four members face criminal incarceration for sixth months until they are reunited by a federal agent (Patrick Wilson) who breaks them out of prison.  Hannibal assumes command and forms a plan to clear the names of himself and his team members, as well as retrieve the stolen plates.  Mayhem inevitably ensues.

In some of the most outrageous action sequences, chief among them an armored tank that flies, anything goes.  “The A-Team” delivers some knockout energy boosted by the infectious fun of the stars.  The camaradere among the stars holds the film’s greatest strength, as the firepower and explosions would be meaningless.  Don’t get me wrong–in some ways they are meaningless, but with the actors having a good time, the goofball excitement becomes increasingly infectious.  Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley especially deliver big laughs.  Some of the action is choppy and Quinton Jackson may mumble a bit much at times, but overall I didn’t find much to complain about, being that this is a film where checking one’s brain at the door is required.  The movie moves along incredibly fast, I didn’t even have time to check my watch, and I was entertained throughout.  Seriously, there is not a dull moment to be found here. Turn off your brain and grab some popcorn.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (1 vote cast)


Here is the entire premise of Taken (which, incidentally, is not unlike the premise of a Mario Bros. video game):

Girl gets kidnapped.  Dad goes to save her.

While some movies would take that simple yet classic idea and slap on a host of possibly-gratuitous extras like a wisecracking sidekick, romantic subplots, globetrotting, backstabbing, and twist endings, Taken does one thing and one thing only, and that is to fulfill the expectations of its thesis.  Surprisingly enough, it not only works but works very well, thanks in large part to an incredible performance from Liam Neeson as the father, Bryan Mills, who is desperate to save his daughter.

Penned by the brilliant Luc Besson (whose writing credits include Leon, The Fifth Element, and Taken’s spiritual predecessor The Transporter), the script succeeds marvelously because it provides such a unique and pure motive for Mills.  His daughter Kim, played by the capable but unremarkable Maggie Grace, is kidnapped not by drug kingpins for ransom, or by an old comrade bent on revenge for a past wrongdoing, or by a shadowy corporation who is using her as leverage in order for him to do their bidding.  Instead she is taken by a group of human traffickers who are in the business of selling young girls as prostitutes to the highest bidder.  This not only lends a great deal of weight and seriousness to the subject matter of the movie, but provides an emotional engagement for the viewers unlike most movies of this type.

Bowser and Princess Peach? Almost...

In some ways, watching Taken is like watching an extended episode of 24.  Mills, a highly trained government agent who has retired in order to live closer to his estranged family, makes Jack Bauer look like Rainbow Brite.  He punches, kicks, jumps, shoots, and drives his way through so many people on the way to rescuing Kim that the body count would provably rival that of Commando.  Mills is ruthless, like his CTU-based counterpart, but the consequences of failure are greater, from an emotional standpoint, than the apocalyptic scenarios portrayed so often in 24.  However, Mills and Bauer (along with hundreds of action stars before them) obviously went to the same bullet-avoidance training seminar, as dozens of pistol- and uzi-wielding foot soldiers are capable of inflicting anything more than a papercut, even at point blank range.

The cinematography, like most action movies since the early part of the decade, follows the Jason Bourne playbook to a tee:  cuts are fast and frantic, action is dimly-lit, and fistfights are more editing than choreography.  This style works well here, and doesn’t have the nauseating side effects of some other action movies.  An interrogation scene is thrown in almost as an afterthought, but mercifully is nowhere near as wince-inducing the one in Casino Royale.

Who would win in a fight between Chuck Norris and Bryan Mills? Honestly, it would be close.

All the comparisons to other movies and TV shows are necessary when reviewing Taken because, although it is a very good film with a solid and emotionally engaging plot, a hero with whom we can empathize, and a enough action to satisfy any Die Hard or Lethal Weapon fan, it brings nothing new to the table and ends up being something of a “greatest hits” collection of the best its predecessors in the genre have to offer.  Perhaps the biggest surprise it does have, though, is Liam Neeson.  He has always been one of my favorite actors–a classy person who picks great roles, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts–but I have never seen him quite like this.  He is entirely convincing as Mills, and pulls off the high-speed action this film requires without missing a beat.  While others could have played the role, Neeson became the role, and that makes all the difference in the world.

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Rating: 4.8/5 (4 votes cast)

Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

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Rating: 3.7/5 (3 votes cast)