The Kingdom
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110 min.
Release Date
The Kingdom

It’s impossible to determine if we’re ready for movies like this. Many of us still oppose any blasé, Hollywood-style discussion of terrorism, post-9/11 life, or the Iraqi conflict. Though this year, Hollywood has tried to get us out of our emotional shells with the kidnapping drama A Mighty Heart, the murder mystery-cum-war critique In the Valley of Elah, and now director Peter Berg’s action picture The Kingdom. Berg’s movie begins with a rather abbreviated timeline of Saudi Arabia and its relationship to the U.S., relating specifically to oil, and then justifying the American presence inside a compound in Riyhad, Saudi Arabia. Present day, we see a typically American softball game, enjoyed with hot dogs and green grass and laughs all around. Riyhad compound citizens seem oblivious to the armed guards protecting them. This Americanization of the environment makes their deaths all the more potent. The serene scene explodes into an attack by terrorists driving through the compound and shooting at random; a lone bomber dressed as a policeman detonates a small explosive on the ball field. Later, after emergency relief, police, and families have gathered to assess the aftermath, the real bomb goes off, claiming cars, nearby architecture, and dozens of victims.

Jamie Foxx stars as FBI Agent Fleury, who struggles with bureaucratic apathy toward the situation; he is personally involved having lost a friend in the attack. After some clever wheeling and dealing, Fleury and three fellow agents are allowed five days on the crime scene to catch the planner of this act. Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman play Foxx’s costars, all agents with their own specialties that, through the investigation, become useful. They’re babysat by local Saudi Colonel Faris Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum), who in spite of being fairly unknown and inexperienced as an actor, gives the film’s best performance. He does typify the “friendly local” station in this Middle-Eastern action yarn, but does it with enough heart to make us forget his character’s traditional placement is another of the film’s many banalities.

Colonel Faris is powerless to help the Americans, whose clock ticks as their five days begin to expire. The local investigation at the bomb site is led by an inexperienced military man who uses tactics that make the Americans cringe. Apparently, there’s no “CSI: Saudi Arabia” in their country, so they’re unaware you’re not supposed to trample over and contaminate crime scenes. But it is another world, so Fleury and his team are forced to give credit of their findings to Colonel Faris. Faris and Fleury develop amity that helps viewers see that people are people. We’re all basically the same—Faris and Fleury are both family men, both skilled investigators, both troubled by the conflict they face. Culturally, however, they can’t help but remain distant. Faris is particularly American-savvy, not blatantly Saudi on the exterior, making him easy for Fleury, therefore us, to get along with. Here’s the problem: that’s assuming we have a problem accepting other cultures. The Kingdom makes that determination for us, by waving a friendly face before us so we don’t feel alone and cold at night.

Of course this is all a Hollywood illusion in the worst way. The FBI’s investigation feels more like a serial killer is being hunted, not a political criminal. It’s a clever way of toning down the material for those of us unprepared for what a bolder film (like In the Valley of Elah) might have shown. Instead, Americans are the invulnerable heroes, while the locals provide ample action-movie collateral damage. The agents’ eventual chase after their terrorist target, a thrilling sequence in the last half-hour, ends abruptly, finalizing with four FBI agents and a few policemen accomplishing what the whole American intelligence community couldn’t do: catch their man. And despite that filmism, it’s all somehow enthralling, throwing us into well-filmed action and making us forget there should be a greater message embedded into the story, even if it does suggest in the end that we’re equally guilty for propagating the never-ending cycle of violence.

Peter Berg’s filmography has shown potential thus far, but this is his best picture. With The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, and Very Bad Things, Berg entertained on an urgent guilty-pleasure level. There’s plenty to be guilty about here, sure, but the pleasure part is so well-conceived. Written by the brother of director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces), Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story’s sleight political liftoff gives way to a better film than this should be. Furthermore, Carnahan’s future material seems occupied with the Iraqi-conflict; later this year Carnahan is back with his script for the Robert Redford political-war film Lions for Lambs, in which the director Peter Berg costars.

We’re consumed by The Kingdom’s subject outright, regardless of endless clichés and problematic hypocrisies; and just when its politics begins to falter, Berg’s expertly shot action sequences rescue the picture with, ironically, mindless and trivial violence. The film’s utmost fault, its lacking significance, is actually its supreme appeal. The Kingdom’s goal is to give audience a relatively insightful starting point, and then continue beyond that with your usual bang-bang-a-thon. It does that quite well.

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