If you’re a filmmaker planning to juice up an FBI thriller by setting it in the contemporary Middle East and using visceral, highly charged images of suicide bombings and violent religious fundamentalism to drive the story, you’d best be on top of your game, brother. Director Peter Berg says his film about the bloody aftermath of several particularly lethal terror attacks in Saudi Arabia was inspired in part by a failed Saudi police investigation following a bombing near the Khobar Tower apartments in Riyadh. There is an interesting political story to be told here — and, to be fair, the graphic précis of recent events in the oil-rich Saudi Kingdom that opens the film, covering everything from the discovery of oil in the 1930s to the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden, is almost scarily effective — but the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan is little more than a blueprint for a spin-off TV series: C.S.I. Saudi Arabia.
The film opens with some ripped-from-today’s-headlines material about a nasty terror attack, culminating in a devastating car bombing, at a Western housing compound in Riyadh. Back in the U.S., a tight-knit group of FBI agents (played by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman) who lost a friend in the bombing bypasses Washington red tape by blackmailing a local Saudi diplomat to get clearance to fly in for an investigation. It’s that type of movie — the protagonists have got it going on in every possible way, but their counterparts in the Saudi establishment, not to mention the U.S. government that tried to block their journey, are largely ineffectual. Foxx’s street smarts, Cooper’s investigative skills, and even Garner’s breasts are all deployed to demonstrate the superiority of American pluck and ingenuity vs. the lazy, outmoded style of policework favored by the Saudis. The only real help our white-hatted heroes get from the locals comes when the police colonel assigned to protect them (Ashraf Barhom) — perhaps sick of Foxx’s condescension — suddenly takes an active interest in catching the culprits.
If the film’s first two acts suffer mainly from their superficiality — the performances are generally serviceable, but the dialogue is mainly trite and there’s no sense of the kind of three-dimensional plotline that the best political thrillers achieve — it’s the third act that turns borderline offensive. After a convoy carting the FBI from place to place is ambushed on a highway (in a set piece shot and edited so frantically that I have to admit I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be happening until it was over), our heroes end up in hostile surroundings, and all hell breaks loose. Here, the movie radically shifts gears from mediocre thriller to mediocre action movie. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire dominate the proceedings as Foxx & Co. scramble into a rescue mission where they perform like an elite special-forces unit. Berg crassly employs the iconography of Internet-broadcast beheadings to scare up a little tension in a scene that would be simply hilarious in its improbability if it weren’t so prima facie ghastly. Meanwhile, as Foxx and friends race against time through the hallways of an apartment building, The Kingdom turns into Dead Arab Theater — the body count is spectacularly high, and everyone in a thobe, it seems, is fair game. It may be a bad neighborhood, but is everyone in sight really culpable in mass murder? Mostly, Berg and Carnahan ignore the question.
You can feel the tension between the filmmakers’ desire to do good work and their businesslike awareness that an $80 million action movie needs to make some coin stateside. The film’s heavy-handed coda pays lip service to the idea that the dominant us-and-them mentality cuts both ways — that, just as Muslim extremists indoctrinate their children in the language of Holy War, American daddies, in their own way, casually teach their children to hate and fear the bad guys — The Kingdom lacks either the chops or the will to tweak its banal, multiplex-ready formula to dramatize such thorny issues. And despite the film’s early suggestion that neither the Saudis nor the U.S. government are seriously concerned about catching these bombers, the film never returns to that story thread once it’s abandoned. If Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana was guilty of playing a little too much like a civics lesson, The Kingdom swerves in the opposite direction, hewing so strictly to formula that the film’s crushing lack of ambition voids its geopolitical context. If The Kingdom becomes a box-office success, it will be because U.S. audiences are somehow hungry for this kind of wish-fulfillment cinema — the idea that, even if the Bin Ladens of the world remain free to pump out videotaped propaganda from whatever cave they’ve come to inhabit despite the marshaled military strength of the world’s greatest superpower, there may yet be lesser terrorist masterminds holed up in nondescript tenements, vulnerable for discovery by muscled, charismatic Americans with a knack for forensics. Sometimes, a comforting, jingoistic fantasy is perfume enough to mask the smell of horseshit in the room. C
Directed by Peter Berg
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cinematography by Mauro Fiore
Film Editing by Colby Parker Jr. and Kevin Stitt
Music by Danny Elfman
Starring Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Ashraf Barhom
Screened 9/15/07 at National Amusements Cinema De Lux, White Plains, NY
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1