A Reel View: The Kingdom

A Reel View
The Kingdom

The Kingdom is a police procedural with a unique - and interesting - twist. While the movie employs all of the investigative techniques we have become familiar with as a result of countless TV shows, there's a little more to this movie than CSI: Saudi Arabia. Politics of many different sorts play a role here, from the international need to keep relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia cordial to the difficulties faced by a female investigator working in a country where women do not hold equal positions to men. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) handles the tricky material of Matthew Michael Carnahan's dense script effectively and turns out a movie that is both intelligent and, at least in its latter stages, pulse-pounding.
The movie opens with a fascinating credit sequence that provides a capsule history of Saudi Arabia from the 1930s (when oil was discovered beneath its arid surface) to September 11, 2001. This is followed by a seemingly idyllic setting: men, women, and children enjoying a softball game at a picnic. It's what one might expect to see anywhere in America, except this is Riyadh, in a secure community where foreign oil workers live with their families. Terrorists have decided to use this event as a chance to capture the world's attention. Posing as policemen, suicide bombers get into the compound and blow themselves up - taking more than 100 people with them, including two FBI agents. The reverberations are felt in Washington, where agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is readying his forensic team for an on-site investigation. With him are Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), a pathologist; Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), a computer geek; and Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), an explosives expert. After some political arm twisting, Ronald is allowed to fly to The Kingdom, but only after he agrees to be babysat by local police colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who's more interested in not making waves than in solving the crime.
Berg gives us a rousing, jarring opening that pulls us into the story. Then he dials things down for a while. The political and investigative aspects of the movie are fascinating to observe, but they aren't the sort of things to get the heart racing. Nevertheless, there's a sense of urgency. We see tensions between the Saudi police and the army, the Americans have only five days and are being kept on a tight leash, and there are indications that the terrorists may be planning a follow-up attack, possibly targeting the new arrivals. As the FBI unearths clues about how the first bombing was orchestrated and interviews witnesses, men are shown assembling more explosives. The last 30 minutes of The Kingdom is balls-to-the-wall action.
The strength of the picture is its intensity. Even during its slower parts, we can feel tension creeping in around the edges. There's also a strong sense of verisimilitude. Although the camerawork is nowhere near as hyperactive as that in The Bourne Ultimatum, there are handheld shots. In this case, the approach is effective because it's not overused. And, even if the screenplay cheats when it comes to simplifying real-world politics and situations, we nevertheless understand what we're seeing is a reasonable analog of what could be. It is not, after all, that farfetched that something like this could happen. And there are a lot of familiar touches: terrorists making tapes, Al Jazeera being used as a propaganda tool, and politicians (especially the Attorney General, played by Danny Huston) who are out of touch.
At first glance, the cast might seem to be an odd one. There's Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as the team leader. Oscar winner Chris Cooper is the tough talking, acerbic one. Jennifer Garner is the woman in a hostile land. And Jason Bateman would rather be elsewhere. Yet the chemistry between these four (none of which is of the romantic variety) works. Cooper and Bateman provide some much needed comic relief but don't go overboard. Foxx and Garner's gravity provides a good counterbalance. And everyone is effective when the shooting starts. Foxx and Garner have done action before, but Cooper and Bateman hold their own. Ashraf Barhom has as important a role as any of the four major stars, and his character has the biggest arc. There's an element of the mismatched cop plot in Al-Ghazi's interaction with Fleury.
The Kingdom is a hard film to pigeonhole because it crosses genres so freely. The pacing is also a little unwieldy. Those who are there for the higher octane elements may distracted during the lengthy investigative section. And those who are hoping for something with the heft and complexity of Syriana may find the all-action conclusion to be a little too loud (not to mention that the resolution hinges on couple of minor contrivances). Overall, however, the film is smart and engaging, and if it plays a little on our fears of the next big terrorist attack, it does so without feeling exploitative.

Movie Reviews and Criticism by James Berardinelli, reelviews.net.