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The Kingdom   B

Universal Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven, Danny Huston.

Review by Rob Vaux

One hesitates to judge The Kingdom as any kind of serious statement about global politics. It has aspirations, but only in the broadest possible terms, and only using the simplistic language favored by studio executives who don't want us to hurt our brains by thinking too much. In truth, it most closely resembles the works of Tom Clancy: convincing technical details gathered for the purpose of a good yarn with only the vaguest connection to the grown-up world. Yet The Kingdom makes for a pretty good yarn at that: exciting and well-constructed, if nakedly derivative at points. And in the midst of it, a few worthwhile observations quietly bubble to the surface.

Its setting is Saudi Arabia, truly the strangest of all possible American bedfellows. The Kingdom flashes through the nation's recent history in the best opening credit sequence yet seen this year, quickly explaining its feudal government, its massive oil reserves, and the razor's edge it walks between the Islamic world and the West. Most pertinent to this film is the fact that U.S. companies maintain large facilities in Saudi territory -- mostly for pumping oil -- with Western employees carefully sequestered from the remainder of the populace in strictly defined compounds. When terrorists target one of those compounds for a horrifying attack, the FBI back in Washington demands to be made a part of the investigation. Nothing doing, says the Attorney General (Danny Huston). The Saudis are in charge out there, and the further presence of U.S. law enforcement on their soil would 1) represent an unconscionable breach of sovereign authority, and 2) turn an already volatile situation into a firestorm. Nevertheless, the feds feel that because American lives were lost, they need an American presence on the ground in Riyadh. After much wrangling (and more than a little political blackmail), a small team led by Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) is smuggled into the country, with a Saudi colonel (Ashraf Barhoum) to serve as babysitter.

What follows is an extended tug of war between Fluery's crew and the Saudis, while the terrorists they both hope to catch refocus on the Americans as an exquisite target of opportunity. Director Peter Berg centers most of the attention on Foxx and Barhoum, using their mix of frustration at each other and growing camaraderie to convey the similarities they possess, as well as the vast cultural differences which make honest communication difficult at best. He overlays that with the eminently serviceable trappings of a political thriller, as Fluery's team slowly assembles pertinent clues while the terrorists work to turn them from the hunters into the prey. Berg's handheld camera technique is beyond derivative, but sharp editing from Colby Parker Jr. and Kevin Stitt helps to engross us in the unfolding plot. And though the vérité can't sell us like it should, The Kingdom's constant use of you-are-there style authenticity retains an effective sense of energy.

Similarly, the remaining Americans -- played by Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and a curiously cast Jason Bateman -- play into convenient Hollywood plot complications, and yet still handle their respective roles well enough to make things worthwhile. Take Garner for example. Saudi Arabia's draconian policies towards women suggest that bringing along someone like her forensics expert Janet Mayes is a supremely bad idea (no matter how well-qualified she may be). She appears here basically to ruffle the Saudis' feathers, chafe at archaic misogyny, and remind us yet again of the wide gulf between Western and Middle Eastern values. But though saddled with such contrivances, Garner appealingly conveys Meyes' tomboy toughness without overplaying it (plus she can shoot a gun like someone who actually knows what she's doing). Cooper undertakes his duties with equal adroitness and while Bateman never quite reconciles his status as comic relief with the film's serious tone, it doesn't disrupt the proceedings unduly.

The Kingdom further compensates by maintaining immaculately professional production values, topped by a crackerjack series of chases and gunfights that solidify its status as reliable popcorn entertainment. Its only stumbling points come when it presumes to educate as well as entertain, presenting ostensibly accurate depictions of Middle Eastern culture that remain bogged in convenient stereotype. But Berg rarely dallies with such pretensions too long, and even when he does, he scores with a few simple messages about human nature that humbly lift the film above point-and-shoot inanity. The Kingdom never botches its admirable intentions, even if they prove more than it can properly develop. Had it come earlier in the summer, its slam-bang credentials might have been lost. Any later, and the weight of Oscar contention would squash it flat. But for now, it forms a nice little bridge between the two -- neither fish nor fowl, but melding enough pieces of both to more or less take flight.

Review published 09.27.2007.

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