What is it with Ridley Scott and alternate cuts of his movies? I can't think of another director who has seen as many of his works remixed, revisited and mashed-up into new versions. You would think that an Oscar-nominated director of Scott's critical and commercial caliber would have earned contractual final cut by now, but apparently not: 'Blade Runner,' 'ALIEN,' 'Gladiator,' 'Legend,' and now 'Kingdom of Heaven' have all seen alternate versions released on home video. Granted, some of the revisited versions of these movies have been done as much for commercial reasons as creative (the largely unnecessary "revisiting" of 'ALIEN' comes to mind), but still, it would seem Scott needs to either get a better agent to negotiate his contracts -- either that or he just needs to learn when to let go.
Having said that, after having seen the director's cut of 'Kingdom of Heaven,' I can't think of another Scott film that would seem to have benefited more from having his original, unfettered vision restored. Upon its theatrical release in early 2005, the film was largely maligned by critics and grossed a disappointing $47 million at the domestic box office (it reportedly cost over hundred million to make). Like many moviegoers, after reading the reviews, I personally skipped the film when it was in theaters, deciding I didn't need to subject myself to a truncated version of Scott's take on the Crusades.
Seeing the film for the first time in its restored version it's still certainly not a true masterpiece, but it is far from the plotty, soulless and chopped-up mess the theatrical cut apparently was. For that reason alone -- and even if you've already seen the film in its abridged form -- this restoration of Scott's original vision is good enough that it probably deserves to be given a second chance.
I'll save you from an endless plot description, as the film is quite dense. Suffice it to say that in 'Kingdom of Heaven,' Scott and screenwriter William Monahan fictionalize the 12th century defeat of the Christians in Jerusalem at the hands of the Muslims, by telling the tale of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), who travels to the holy land during the Crusades as defender of his city and his people. Along the way, Scott stages immense battle scenes, complete with fast-cut MTV editing and voluminous amounts of bloodletting, while he and Monahan hone the narrative to parallel current wars being waged over religion (with varying degrees of subtlety). Where Scott and Monahan stand on such issues should be rather obvious to anyone by the end of the film.
Even having never seen the original cut of 'Kingdom of Heaven,' I found it fairly easy to guess which elements comprised the over 45 minutes of reinstated material. A story that critics complained lacked cohesion before is now much more fully formed. The added material is particularly integral to the first twenty minutes of the movie. Balian's fleshed-out relationship with his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson, doing a nice medieval spin on Qui-Jon), from whom he will inherit land and army, gives the film an emotional arc that was absent before. Recalling Maximus in 'Gladiator,' Balian's journey in 'Heaven' is also one of identity, and that of a common man forced to become a leader largely by circumstance. This spiritual journey completely invigorates 'The Director's Cut,' and restores the narrative soul that was yanked from the theatrical version.
Balian's home life is also far more resonant and dramatic -- crucial scenes were inexplicably cut out in the theatrical version, including the death of Balian's wife. Though I still think the shoehorning of a romantic subplot involving Sibylia ('Casino Royale's Eva Green) is perhaps the weakest narrative aspect of the movie, the added material at least gives these scenes a genuine spark and chemistry. If nothing else, at least I wasn't bored.
Still, 'Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut' is not a perfect film. In fact, it's probably not even a great one. I hate to lay blame at the feet of a single actor, but I was nonplussed with the casting of Orlando Bloom. Though fine as Legolas in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, and cutting a dashing enough figure as Will Turner in 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' here he has to carrying a gargantuan story on his narrow shoulders, and for me he crumbled. It is not that Bloom is a poor actor -- he just lacks the gravitas and sheer physicality that Russell Crowe brought to 'Gladiator' in spades. Bloom, like Crowe, has an immense challenge on his hands, but while Crowe wiped the floor clean during 'Gladiator's action scenes, in 'Heaven,' Scott's bombastic set pieces kick Bloom's tiny little ass right off the screen.
Yet it remains a testament to Scott's visual eye and sense of story that even with a weak lead, his restored 'Director's Cut' makes the film a journey worth taking. Even if you've seen the theatrical version of 'Kingdom of Heaven,' I'm afraid you're going to have to see the film again.
'Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut' comes to Blu-ray with considerable expectations. In its Blu-ray launch promo materials, Fox used quotes from director Ridley Scott trumpeting the stellar quality of the high-def master made for 'Kingdom of Heaven,' so if this disc was anything less than magnificent, it would be branded another strike against Blu-ray. Not to worry -- this 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 encode (at 24mbps) really is quite excellent.
Scott goes for a more stylized color palette with 'Kingdom of Heaven' than he used on 'Gladiator.' He tends to favor three moods: dusk scenes are flush with deep blues; daylight scenes with a cold, reddish overcast; and romantic interiors painted with vibrant oranges. Despite the overt use of filters, the transfer is surprisingly consistent. Color saturation is even and clean, with only the slightest noise in some solid areas -- largely long shots of sunsets and the like. The richness of hue doesn't hamper detail, with skintones and textures (such as the film's ornate costuming) appearing natural and impressive.
'Kingdom of Heaven' is a somewhat dark film, however, and its delicacy may be off-putting to some. Blacks are pitch perfect and contrast boasts plenty of pop. But while the transfer exudes a true sense of depth, darker scenes are so bathed in black that the slightly crushed contrast tends to erase the finest detail in the shadows. This fall-off is not extreme, however, and was likely an aesthetic choice. I personally did not find it problematic, and watching the film in proper low-light conditions, the transfer remained detailed and three-dimensional. But an overly-bright viewing area could just as easily wash out the picture, especially with smaller screen sizes. More than most other next-gen releases I've seen, 'Kingdom of Heaven' feels like it really demands a sizable home theater to be fully appreciated.
Fox bestows upon 'Kingdom of Heaven' a very bombastic, hyper-aggressive DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track (although once again, the studio has not included an English Dolby Digital track). Fans of sturm and drang sword and sorcery epics filled with clanging metal and screams of violent agony will not be disappointed.
As you would expect, this is one very loud mix whenever there is violence happening onscreen, which is often. A completely immersive, 360-degree soundfield is created, and it is truly exciting. The first battle scene about ten minutes into the movie (after Balian kills his priest/brother) is a good example. Sounds both bone-crunching and subtle fill the rears, with individual scrapes of metal and the beating of horse hooves easily localized. The tonal quality of fine sonic details is outstanding, and I would say superior to any DTS-HD track I've heard yet from Fox, even 'X-Men: The Last Stand' and 'Fantastic Four.' Dynamics are also fantastic, with the kind of ultra-real transparency to sound that rivals the theatrical experience. Low bass is also stupendous in its power, even if played at just a decent volume level.
If the soundtrack falters at all, it is in subtlety and atmosphere. This is likely more a function of the film's sound design, but quieter passages tend to fade into nothing, with a front-heavy feel and a lack of even much score use in the rears. Admittedly, this deficiency is only apparent in contrast to the action sequences, which are so powerful they obliterate everything else by comparison. Still, I longed for a bit more consistency in terms of the 360-degree effect. Nevertheless, my nitpicking aside, this is a stellar mix.
'Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut' recently hit standard-def DVD in another of Ridley Scott's gargantuan multi-disc special editions. Unfortunately, even a BD-50 dual-layer Blu-ray disc can't seem to support top-shelf MPEG-2 video and pack in the extras. And so, there is not a single bonus to be found here, aside from the film's theatrical trailer in 2.40:1 widescreen and full 1080p video.
'Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut' is a superior version of a flawed film. Out of all of Ridley Scott's many films that have been released in alternate versions on home video, I'd say this one benefits the most from the restoration of excised material. In bringing the film to blu-ray, Fox has produced a visually and aurally impressive disc which will hopefully further aid a reassessment of Scott's much-maligned epic. Unfortunately, even with a spacious BD-50 dual-layer disc at its disposal, it appears that the bit-hungry MPEG-2 compression codec doesn't allow much room for extras. But if video and audio quality is all you are after, 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a definite recommend.