A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: # 19


2007, R, 110 mins.

Ronald Fleury: Jamie Foxx / Grant Sykes: Chris Cooper / Janet Mayes: Jennifer Garner / Adam Leavitt: Jason Bateman / Faris Al Ghazi: Ashraf Barhom / Sgt. Haytham: Ali Suliman / Damon Schmidt: Jeremy Piven

Directed by Peter Berg / Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan

Peter Berg’s magnificent THE KINGDOM is the kind of action-thriller that has the perseverance to actually be about something more than just explosions and bullets blazing.  It certainly has the latter elements, and Berg is at the top of his directorial form in handling of the film’s breathtaking and explosive set pieces. 

Yet, THE KINGDOM is an action thriller with its finger firmly placed on the geo-political pulse; it’s one of the rare post-911 films that works so efficiently as a sobering parable on the moral and ethical uncertainty that we have lived in since September 2001.  It's also a meticulously mounted action film, which contains virtuoso moments of patriotic, gung-ho mayhem.

Loosely based on the FBI’s investigation of the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran (which Berg read about in the memoir "My FBI" by former Bureau director Louis Freech), with a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Michael Mann in the producer’s chair, THE KINGDOM seems less concerned with probing the underlining problems with post-9/11 political relations between nations and instead hones in on how two nations desperately battle in an effort to avoid more bloodshed. 

The film could have easily disintegrated in a sensationalistic action film that shamelessly used the memories of the terrorist attacks in New York for the sake of making a popcorn entertainment.  Wisely, Berg and company avoid long-winded and unnecessary political pontificating.  Religious themes are kept at an appropriate distance and there seems like there is little serious effort to chastise Saudi Arabia for harboring of terrorists.  Instead, THE KINGDOM works better as a visceral and emotional experience.  It deals with the hot-button issues of Arab/US relations and terrorism, but it uses those aspects as a launching pad for a thrilling and absorbing investigative procedural.

The film’s opening title credit sequence is ingenious in its simple effectiveness.  It chronicles - through images, news footage, maps, and graphics - the political and social history of Saudi Arabia from the 1930's, through to 9/11 and to the present day.  The brilliance of this is how immediately it draws you into the film and establishes the particulars without really dwelling on needless exposition.  Through the sequence we see how the country rose to be one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil and how the US became one of the world’s largest importers of oil.  Evidently, this created a decided shift in the diplomatic relationship between the two nations.  The best part of this approach is how we are not left to linger on these historical facts: it allows Berg to shift quickly into the story.  It’s a perfect introduction because it immerses the viewer in the film’s reality, which only helps to make its opening moments so frightening in their verisimilitude.

The opening sequence after the credit montage also does not waste time, and Berg quickly dives head first into the narrative and begins the film with a massive and shocking suicide bomber explosion - two in fact - that manage to kill both Americans and Saudis.  The target was an American housing complex in Saudi Arabia and the casualties are high.  However, the carnage is not just perpetrated solely on Americas; in one quick glimpse, two Saudis are viscously murdered in a halo of gunfire.  The whole sequence is astoundingly realized and shot, and Berg employs a loose, cinema verite shooting style here and through the rest of the film, the same aesthetic style that separated his FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS miles apart from other football films.

We then are taken to Washington, where we see how hopelessly inert the American politicians are in handling the matter.  Predictably, instead of going in for retaliation and revenge, the bureaucrats opt for a soft-pedaled approach and handle it with the quiet hand of diplomacy.  Clearly, a group of FBI operatives sure don’t like Washington’s lenient handling of the terrorist massacre, and a group of them demand - not ask - that they be transferred immediately to the scene of the crime in order to find out how the attack was planned and to capture the terrorists.

The group is lead by FBI Special Agent Fleury (Jamie Foxx, nicely underplayed and quietly charismatic), who seems to be absolutely shocked that terrorists could bomb such a well guarded compound.  Being a father, he is also stunned by the deaths of so many women and children.  Perhaps even more significant was the fact that one of his personal colleagues at the Bureau was also murdered, so the notion of going into The Kingdom has a personal edge to it.

His elite team is an eclectic group and is made up a rugged and strong female forensic expert, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner, who simultaneously plays rough and tough alongside subtle feminine sexuality and vulnerability better than anyone), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper, once again easily immersing himself completely in his part), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, whose acerbic and sly delivery provides the film some much needed comic relief).  After making a deal with a Saudi ambassador, Fleury and company are granted only five days on the compound for what would likely be a month long investigation.

Upon arriving, the investigative squad is treated a bit more like prisoners than collaborators in probing the crime scene.  They feel like they are on a goodwill mission, but the level of authority that they have is paltry.  Whereas they want to do a serious and through investigation of the area, others do not give them that luxury.  One American diplomat there (played by Jeremy Piven, who plays smug and pompous as good as anyone) simply tells Fleury’s group to lay low as long as possible, take a few pictures here and there, and then leave.  He also advises them to meet with the Prince in his palace for a great photo op, but Fleury grows increasingly bitter with the lack of an open hand in their investigation.

The crew’s living quarters is a gym with bunks, locked during the night.  They are also only allowed five minutes at the epicenter of the bombings and are not allowed to touch, take, or shoot photos of anything from the site.  They are also not allowed to interview witnesses, whom are in abundance seeing as the bombing took place in broad daylight in front of hundreds or people.  Fleury’s crew has their work cut out for them, and their investigative techniques have been blasted back to the stone age as a result of all of the restrictions they face.

The most fascinating aspect to THE KINGDOM is how it presents the difficulties of Fleury’s mission, which - because of all of the unnecessary regulations and strict rules - would have been impossible for even Ethan Hunt and his M:I-6 crew to crack.  Their daily grind is one of constant opposition.  They have terrible quarters, have very little food and rations, have unbearable heat to deal with, and are barely given instructions or directions to find their way around the city.  Their day does not even begin with a set time schedule (they will be woken up when their liaison opens the gym doors every morning).  There are also cultural obstacles that are intriguing, such as the Yankees' colorful and ubiquitous use of foul words (which does not sit well in a staunchly religious land) and Janet’s subtle sexuality.  Of course, Saudi women are not accustomed to wearing form fitting tight shirts and pants that reveal their shapely bodies, so Janet’s physical appearance is a constant irritant to the locals.  It does not matter that, in the heat of combat, Janet can take care of business as well as the men, it’s primarily the fact that she seems like an equal within her group and that is a threat to the slanted gender-biases of the nation.

Thankfully, the group eventually gets some support in the form of Col. Al-Ghazi, played extremely well by Ashraf Barhom as a man sternly dedicated to justice at all costs.  Soon, both he and Fleury realize that they will have to disregard their cultural differences and pool their resources to find the culprits of the attack before it’s too late.  The nice dynamic of the film is the way it fleshes out the Al-Ghazi character to be much more than a one-dimensional police figure that constantly is a thorn in Fleury’s side.  Barhom’s performance is a delicate balance act between conveying sympathy and contempt.  He has to be the force of justice in the land and often has to remind Fleury about where he is and what he can and can’t do, but he’s ultimately a noble character in the way he is dedicated to preserving the peace, no matter what the cost.  The immerging friendship that he and Fleury develops is akin to those in a cop-buddy action flick, but the performances and interplay between Foxx and Barhom as so decent that you quickly forget such parallels.

On a technical level, THE KINGDOM is another undisputed triumph for Peter Berg, who has emerged as one of the finest actors-turned-directors of the last few years.  What he has shown in THE RUNDOWN and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is his command for creating scintillating and tense action sequences.  The film was shot in Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Emirates) and amazingly in the Arizona desert (where many of the thrilling car chase scenes take place).  There is not one moment in THE KINGDOM where we doubt the integrity of its images.  The divergent locations are seamlessly integrated and Berg is able to brand in his film an incredible documentary vibe to the proceedings.  Much like Paul Greengrass, Berg’s improvisational style - filled with quick edits, shaky camera work, and lens distortion - greatly lends itself to the rich tapestry of the film’s environment.  Whether it be with simple establishing shots or grand and large scale action set pieces (as is the case with a remarkably gripping and exhilarating prolonged action scene in the film’s final act), Berg shows how competent he is at submerging the audience into the gritty, hot, and sand-drenched Saudi landscapes.  This is one of the best looking grungy films in a long while.

Again, its the film’s insistence to be an action film about something that is its most notable asset. As thrilling and intense that the action sequences are, the film’s underlining themes are rightfully sad and disheartening.  THE KINGDOM accurately encapsulates - without needlessly dwelling on them - the sort of moral ambiguity and pathos that grips out world today.  The film certainly will have its critics that say it, at its core, is just another propaganda film that chronicles and hero worships the type of macho, American vigor and patriotism that has dominated its manifest destiny inspired ideology throughout history.  Those pundits miss the film’s more subtle message.  Yes, the American military might, courage, resolve, and will is shown as unyielding in the film and Fluery and company do "win" in the conventional sense, but by the end of the story we get an undeniable sense that no country is the real winner.

That is what makes THE KINGDOM such a rare breed of action thriller: It’s not upbeat and uplifting with its content.  There is an undercurrent of utter hopelessness that permeates it.  One scene alone sums this up and it occurs as a juxtaposed montage: Both an American and a Saudi tell someone close to them that there is no need to worry about the future seeing as that they will "kill" all of their enemies.  In short, no one will win when we are involved in a war of such violent rhetoric.  Ultimately, the film is about a mass murder investigation, but in the end it’s pointless whether or not the crime is solved.  The larger issue is how two worlds will live with one another when there is so much distrust and hatred involved.  It’s these unresolved issues that stayed with me as I left THE KINGDOM and accompanying those memories are the film’s great performances, stirring and evocative locales, and technically dazzling action scenes.  This is one of 2007's most smart, thoughtful, rousing, and distressing films.

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