In my review of “Syriana” last year, I noted that many viewers who were apparently befuddled by that film were probably expecting an action movie since there was an explosion in the film’s trailer. “The Kingdom” would have been that film. Not to be confused with Lars von Trier’s hospital horror mini-series of the same name, this latest effort from former Soap Opera heart throb turned big screen actor/director Peter Berg (“The Rundown”) is a rather disorganized jumble of Rambo-style action and 21st century sham diplomacy.
The film begins with a slick opening credits sequence that gives us a quick potted history of US-Saudi relations, starting with the discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s through the current post-9/11 conditions. It then cuts to an American housing compound in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where the residents are chillin’ and grillin’ at a softball game. This suburban solitude is rudely interrupted by a gang of terrorists who do a drive-by before setting off a couple of bombs, the aftermath of which looks disturbingly similar to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
In response, FBI agent Fleury (Jamie Foxx, “Miami Vice”) puts together a crack Evidence Recovery team composed of forensic scientist Mayes (Jennifer Garner, “Elekra”), explosives expert Sykes (Chris Cooper, “Syriana”) and computer geek Leavitt (Jason Bateman, “Smokin’ Aces”). After twisting a few choice arms to get around US government red tape, Fleury and his team touch down in Riyadh, where they are met by their minder, Col. Al Ghazi (Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom). From this point we get the usual ego stroking between Fleury and Al Ghazi while the perpetrators of the bombing prepare for their next strike.
While expertly crafted, “The Kingdom” is so stereotypically ‘Hollywood’ that it’s almost comical. It ticks most of the ‘Modern Middle East Action’ checkboxes: the Saudis objecting to an Israeli passport stamp, suicide bombers, attempted beheading of a Jew on camera. Also, Fleury’s team is perfectly cast (a black man, an outspoken woman, a Jew and a Redneck) to cover all the socio-ethnic bases needed to legitimize it to American audiences, yet at the same time offend the sensibilities of their hard-line Muslim antagonists. And, of course, we have Al Ghazi and his Sergeant on hand as ‘good’ Saudis to conveniently remind us that not all Muslims are bad; Just most of them. However, Berg and crew do take risks. Fleury’s free-wheeling, American style of doing business is portrayed as initially causing more problems than it solves and, believe it or not, the Brotha’ doesn’t die first!
The film’s biggest problem is that the script avoids any sort of subtlety like it was a communicable disease. Every aspect of good and evil is played to such an extreme that it seems like the writers don’t trust the audience to be able to process what they’re seeing. The film makes several half-hearted attempts to shed some light on the perpetuation of the cultural antagonism between the West and the Middle East, including a pretty clever denouement which would have been effectively sobering were the movie not so deliberately light weight. However, it’s the Braun that overpowers the Brains here. Whatever highfalutin ideals the filmmakers my have had going in evaporate by the end of the opening credits sequence. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is as clich’d and pro-forma as it comes. Even an actor as good as Chris Cooper (see his work in “Syriana,” for instance) can’t make it sound good.
The pacing is the second problem. After a heart pumping start, the film settles into a meandering mix of shady politicking and an extended episode of “CSI:Riyadh.” You see the characters going here and going there, you see them gathering evidence and you see them strategizing and formulating, yet when you think about it all together, nothing actually happens. Fortunately, the film is rescued by the final 20 minutes, which packs in enough rocket launchers, spent bullet casings and dead bodies for two movies. This is seriously intense stuff and Berg and his actors are all up to the task.
“The Kingdom” is a film with pretty big ambitions, but suffers from an identity crisis. It lacks the conviction to pursue the intellectual and socio-political aspects of its plot yet neither does it manage to sustain the considerable energy it generates during the action sequences. This is a decent action movie, but everything about it tastes like retread. When you average the highs and lows of this film, you are left with a run-of-the-mill Hollywood actioner. It purports to tackle pressing issues, but ends up copping out to a middle of the road stance and covers it up with lots of noise.
Peter Berg (director) / Matthew Michael Carnahan (screenplay)
CAST: Jamie Foxx … Ronald Fleury
Chris Cooper … Grant Sykes
Jennifer Garner … Janet Mayes
Jason Bateman … Adam Leavitt
Ashraf Barhom … Colonel Faris Al Ghazi