Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, from a script by newcomer Matthew Michael Carnahan, isn’t really a whole lot more than the 21st-century equivalent of a 1940s Errol Flynn war picture—or even John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968)—no matter how much pretension is generously ladled over it. Oh sure, it’s set in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia to be exact—and yes, it has a really important sounding title. It does do a neat job of establishing the history of the U.S.-Saudi oil-based relationship, but unfortunately the film’s location isn’t a lot more than backdrop exotica. Once the movie finishes its little history lesson on oil, it only mentions the “bubblin’ crude” in passing, while it reveals its true colors as a so-so action flick that wants to be taken for something profound with a capital “P.”
And sadly there’s a good chance it will achieve that goal, despite all the on-screen evidence to the contrary. After all, it’s a movie about fighting terrorism, right? Well yes, but it’s also a star vehicle for Jamie Foxx in full-speed-ahead movie-star mode. Once the setup is established—there’s a terrorist bombing at a U.S. oil-company facility for American workers—the movie becomes a collection of heroic clichés and stock characters from dozens, if not hundreds, of other movies.
Foxx plays Ronald Fluery, solid family man and FBI agent extraordinaire, who leads the usual team of specialists to investigate the attack. To this end, we have crusty veteran Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), obligatory female forensics specialist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and, of course, comic-relief rookie Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). Predictably, things don’t go well, thanks to the uncooperative Saudi bureaucracy, personified at first by stiff-backed Col. Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, Paradise Now, giving the film a better performance than it deserves). Sykes finds himself stymied at every turn by the Saudi’s supposed concern for the safety of their American guests. But thanks to the marvel of screenwriting, Sykes will win Al-Ghazi’s respect with his superior detecting skills, thereby making a firm friend and an essential ally, willing to overlook not only Sykes’ gung-ho manner but also Mayes’ worrisome breasts. By this point, The Kingdom is essentially a police-procedural drama with the usual red-tape struggles. Really, is there a nickel’s worth of difference between convincing the Saudi prince (TV actor Raad Rawi) to help our heroes accomplish their mission with a little well-placed straight talk and getting a sympathetic judge to sign that badly needed search warrant? (It’s hardly coincidental that the movie was produced by Michael Mann of Miami Vice fame.)
It would help considerably if the film were a little more convincing in the realm of detection. There’s an especially risible scene where Mayes tediously pieces together scraps of evidence that will very obviously form a marble when assembled. That doesn’t keep our crack forensic specialist from having to put every last fragment into place in order to determine that it is, in fact, a marble—and then it’s up to the soldier guarding her to announce, “It’s a marble.”
The film is on surer footing when it goes for flat-out action in its later stages, even if it milks the suspense of whether or not the heroes will arrive in time to prevent a beheading, so much that it has to turn the bad guys into something like the Three Stooges of terrorism in order to keep the sequence going for its improbable length. One might rightly quibble with the Arab-shooting-gallery mentality that kicks in with the climax (is the entire neighborhood a hotbed of terrorists?), but it’s undeniably effective mayhem.
The tip-off as concerns the film’s shallowness is the fact that it’s topped by a tag scene nearly as cloying as John Wayne’s “You’re what this war is all about” shtick from The Green Berets. A last-minute “revelation” attempting to drag the film back to the faux relevance of its opening is so obviously set up that it falls far short of the chilling moment the filmmakers undoubtedly intended. All in all, The Kingdom qualifies as passable entertainment, but it’s far from the socio-political statement all the fuss would indicate. Rated R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence and for language.