Film Review: The Kingdom

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A message movie that sends decidedly mixed-signals, there are times when The Kingdom seems like it might actually be too high-minded, and could use a few more explosions to nudge it into the genre it leans so hard into. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic GWOTsploitation police procedural-cum-action flick that goes to great lengths to show (via montages and a jackhammeringly obvious coda) that for all our differences, Saudi Arabia and the United States are a lot alike.

The point is explicitly made several times, like when an American émigré points out that Saudis, like Americans, don’t do their own manual labor, but farm it out to immigrants, or when American FBI agent Jamie Foxx and local police chief Ashraf Barhom bond over their mutual love of law enforcement, their sons and ‘70s television like “The Green Beast” and, how you say…Steve Austin?

So similar but so different, what can possibly bring us together? How about car chases, machine gun battles and brutal, brutal knife fights? America—and Saudi Arabia—Fuck yeah!

Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) kick things off in high gear with a visual timeline of U.S.-Saudi relations, using computer graphics, found sound clips and news footage for a rather charged refresher course that points out that the U.S. is the world’s number one consumer of oil and the Saudi kingdom the world’s number one producer, and that Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers hail from the kingdom. (That the Bush family and Saudi royal family are BFF is left out).

From there, we jump to a fictionalized version of a recent terrorist attack on Western civilians in Saudi Arabia, and then back to Washington D.C., where a group of FBI agents want to get on the ground to investigate the crime, since one of their own died in the attack.

Some unlikely pressure applied to the fictional Attorney General by the fictional FBI director and directly to a Saudi diplomat by Foxx and a Judith Miller-looking journalist, and soon Foxx’ cookie cutter good soldier is leading wisecracking Jewy sidekick Jason Bateman (in an extremely Steve Zahn-y role), tight t-shirt rocking personality-free Jennifer Garner, and wise old good old boy Chris Cooper into a culture so foreign to them it might as well be Mars.

Despite the heavy-handed parallelism Berg, directing form a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, indulges in, the actors are all likeable presences and gifted actors, and the culture clash drama engaging enough to make the ten o’clock network police drama stuff go down easy.

But as the movie reaches its climax, the earlier arguments over treating terrorism like a crime instead of a war are forgotten as Berg makes with the pyrotechnics and it is ON. As an action piece goes, it’s all done quite well. There’s a visceral, gritty feel to the violence, and when the score drops out to provide a symphony of popping gun blasts, it approaches artful, but the revenge fantasy shoot ‘em up seems to belong to a different movie all together (a fact underscored in a goofy scene where Foxx and Barhoum crouch behind a car for cover and prepare to enter the fray, buddy cop style. He’s an American who plays by his own rules. He’s a Saudi who’s getting too old for this shit. Together they are—Coalition of the Killing!).

The message seems to be that Americans and Saudis share the same virtues and vices, but it’s a message that’s almost overpowered by the message that violence is either stomach-churningly terrible or fist-pumpingly thrilling, depending on who’s committing it and why. The only difference between the American military, as embodied by Foxx, and the Wahhabi extremists, as embodied by the Big Bad, is their choice of targets. And while that is certainly a big, important distinction, it’s kind of depressing if that’s the only difference, isn’t it?

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