Kingdom, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/28/07 00:00:00

"Pretty Good, But Peter Berg Is No Mann"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The next few months are going to see an influx of films, documentaries and straight dramas alike, using the current geopolitical situation as a stepping-off point. Because there are so many of them on the horizon, this mini-wave has already inspired a number of hand-wringing think pieces asking whether or not audiences will be willing to pay good money to see the very thing that they are theoretically going to the movies to escape from in the first place–talk which has intensified in the wake of the mediocre commercial response of Paul Haggis’ “In The Valley of Elah.” Of this group of films, I suspect that the most commercially successful of the bunch will be Peter Berg’s action drama “The Kingdom” and this is not because of any position it might take on the subject. In fact, outside of its awkward final moments, it doesn’t really have much to say about our adventures in foreign territories at all. Instead, it mere uses it as a backdrop for a big-screen version of something else that audiences can get for free on their televisions every week–those crime investigation shows like “CSI” and “Bones” in which good-looking people exchange jargon-heavy dialogue as they peer intently at a tiny piece of metal and instantly deduce that the killer is. . .Earl.

After a pre-credits timeline that tries to sum up a century or so of Saudi Arabian history in a couple of minutes for those clueless as to what is going on in the region, the film opens on a American housing compound located in Riyadah as the inhabitants play baseball, barbecue and otherwise go through the motions of a seemingly perfect day. Of course, we know that it is only a matter of time before this peace is shattered and before you know it, a group of terrorists clad in Saudi police uniforms stage a multi-level attack on the compound–including machine gun drive-bys and a couple of bombs- that eventually leave hundreds of civilians dead or wounded, among them an FBI observer (Kyle Chandler). The attack is rumored to be the work of Osama-wanna-be Abu Hamza and FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) wants to send a team of agents to the crime scene in order to investigate–a request that is denied both by the Saudis and the State Department, neither of whom wants a group of outsiders mucking about in an already tense situation. Fleury won’t take not for an answer, though, and using his powers of persuasion, he manages to grease the Saudi wheels enough to allow a team consisting of himself and fellow counter-terrorism experts Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) to make a top-secret five-day trip to Riyadah to investigate.

When they arrive, they meet up with their Saudi liaison, Colonel Faris Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum), and discover that the original agreement to work the bomb site is not going to be honored–they will spend most of their time inside a dorm and during the brief periods of time at the site, they will not be allowed to touch anything, question any witnesses or do anything except to pose for a couple of pictures. The group gets no support from the local embassy–the envoy (Jeremy Piven) frankly wants them to go home and not cause any trouble–but they find a sympathetic soul in Al-Ghazi, a man who has his own reasons for wanting those responsible brought to justice–during the attack, he bravely defended the Americans, killed a couple of terrorist and as a reward, he was suspected of being in on the plot and tortured by his own countrymen until they finally realized that he wasn’t involved. Finally, the Americans begin to do their work and before long, they begin to piece the crime together and stage a raid on the suspected whereabouts of Abu Hamza and his men but it turns out to be a ruse that lures them into a highway ambush which results in Leavitt being taken captive and an all-out firefight between the good guys and the bad guys that takes up pretty much the last half-hour of the film’s running time.

“The Kingdom” was directed by Peter Berg and coming on the heels of his strong work on “The Rundown” and “Friday Night Lights,” it serves as a further reminded that the former actor is indeed a strong and sure filmmaker. In this film, he tries to approximate the cinematic style of Michael Mann (who was once mentioned as a possible director for the project and who serves as one of its many producers) by combining a lean and economical storytelling approach with a visually dynamic style and a flair for intricately staged action set-pieces that come across as wildly violent and chaotic even though they have been put together in such a carefully meticulous manner that the viewer always knows what is going on at every given moment and where the characters are in relation to each other. The opening attack sequence on the American compound packs a queasy jolt as it gradually unfolds in unexpected ways and the extended assault set-piece that dominates the film’s third act is a little masterpiece of kinetic filmmaking that immediately grabs you and refuses to relinquish its hold for over thirty minutes of non-stop chaotic action. These two segments are so impressively staged and executed that they would be enough to warrant a recommendation even if the film that they bookend turned out to come up short in other significant areas.

It is a good thing too because, as it turns out, that is exactly what happens with “The Kingdom.” As I said before, it is clearly trying to follow in the footsteps of the films of Michael Mann but while Mann would have lavished just as much care and invention onto the sequences of the FBI team going through the motions of their investigations–carefully observing professionals at work is pretty much the common motif of all of Mann’s films–Berg and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan let the investigative aspect of the story slide during the plodding middle section. Outside of a couple of key plot moments, our heroes really don’t seem to be doing any investigating, even when they are supposed to be doing so, and instead of allowing them to eventually piece together where they can find their target, the film loses patience and essentially drops him into their laps. Beyond that, there are a couple of serious lapses of artistic judgement that threaten to upend the entire films. The first involves the casting of Jennifer Garner as one of the investigators. Technically, her performance is fine and she is, of course, convincing during her action scenes but I never believed for a second that the FBI would run the risk of making a highly tense situation even more so by sending a woman investigator into what is essentially a patriarchal community–the role seems to have been cast this way to crudely underline the fact that unlike the U.S.A., women in Saudi Arabia don’t have the freedom to wear tight T-shirts and kick ass. On the other hand, that casting almost looks staid and sensible in comparison to the idea of Jeremy Piven as a diplomat, especially when his performance turns out to be little more than a politically-based riff on his “Entourage” character–if there were people as loud and snarky as him working in the Middle East, things over there would be going even worse than they are now. I also have a strong objection to the final scene, a little bit that ham-handedly tries to tack on one minute of semi-profound social commentary to 119 minutes of relatively mindless action. That would be bad enough but the bit in question is liable to annoy audiences of all political persuasions–thoughtful moviegoers will be offended by its condescending and crashingly obvious tone (even Paul Haggis isn’t usually this blatantly on the nose) while those who have enjoyed the red-meat thrills of the rest of the film are likely to be outraged by its message.

When it sticks solely to the action-oriented material, “The Kingdom” is an undeniably gripping and entertaining film and on the basis of that alone, I am perfectly comfortable with the idea of recommending it. The problem is that it clearly wants to be more than that but Berg never quite figures out a way to take the familiar material and transcend it as he did with his highly impressive adaptation of “Friday Night Lights.” The result is a film that basically feels like an extended television episode and while it works well enough on that level, anyone entering “The Kingdom” hoping for something more is going to come away a little disappointed.

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