By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Peter Berg, Universal Pictures, US
With a Michael Mann producer credit, the star power of Jamie Foxx, the DV, and all the clenched jaws and fast-talking pseudo-professionalism of the film’s trailer, one might expect something of The Kingdom more along the lines of Riyadh Vice than C.S.I.: Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, Peter Berg’s film is more the latter, with a blithely tech-free forensics investigation, lots of cop talk about “murder” and “criminals,” and the very wobbliest variety of vérité camerawork. The style is rather unsophisticatedly gritty and occasionally looks (and behaves) like TV, with an impossibly minute attention span and a slightly tasteless strain of sentimentality. (As in Berg’s previous film, Friday Night Lights, the tender strains of Explosions in the Sky again denote emotion.)
The film’s plot, while it has its perfunctory twists and turns, is relatively straightforward, beginning (as is increasingly common) with an act of terrorism. Two Islamic fundamentalists, under the tutelage of a Bin Ladenesque terrorist-guru named Abu Hamza, pose as policeman and attack—if you can imagine their gall—a family softball game at an American compound in Riyadh. Many American men, women, and children are gunned down, and when police and ambulances arrive, a bomb explodes, killing dozens more. Among these is an FBI agent, and this transgression sends the agent’s colleagues and friends, led by Jamie Foxx’s Special Agent Ronald Fleury, into a flurry of retributive action. Undaunted by the disapproval of their superiors, Fleury and his team (which comprises Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman, for some reason) blackmail their way into Saudi Arabia to solve the crime and kick as much ass as possible.
As preposterous as this sounds (and, onscreen, is), the film nonetheless has the merit of being generally better written and more expensive looking than most TV. And while its procedural tempo resembles that of a bad contemporary cop drama, the film’s real focal point—namely, the relationship between Foxx’s relentless FBI agent and the dutiful Saudi cop charged with “protecting” him—owes more to 1980s action movies than television. It’s quite directly modeled on that small subgenre of interracial buddy picture, like Lethal Weapon or Red Heat, that sought to amend a kind of imaginary apartheid between divided races or ideologies through a cathartic murder spree for the sake of a common interest. And while the film isn’t exactly broadcasting such a connection, the familiar device manages to be almost reassuring here, as though the pairing of one of our boys with a respectable Arab policeman could do for Mideast violence what Riggs and Murtaugh did for a racially divided Los Angeles or what Belushi and Arnold did for the Cold War.
And I say this only half-mockingly: as dull-witted as the sentiment is, there is something incredibly satisfying about The Kingdom. As in the scene in which Fleury and Al-Ghazi bond over a shared love of The Incredible Hulk, the movie illustrates the small pleasures and comforts of popular culture: the palliative conformity to the requirements of genre and the guileless sense of duty to convention. Although The Kingdom may be a thrillingly stupid piece of work, its message uncomplicated and its politics suspect, it nonetheless brings the Middle East and America’s involvement there into a vernacular of Hollywood moviemaking that is familiar and deeply ingrained, even if it is rather mechanical. Berg’s film is no feat of politics or controversy, but a work of middle-brow translation, like Blood Diamond, United 93, and even An Inconvenient Truth, telegraphing complex issues into our homes and fantasies and multiplexes in a way that is digestible, if not particularly astute. The intention of these films is to broaden consciousness, whether or not they manage to deepen understanding. Perhaps film is too blunt an instrument for that task, anyway—it’s certain that the popcorn movie is.
Oddly, the part of The Kingdom that is most informative and entertaining—infotaining?—is its credit sequence: several minutes of the history of Western-Saudi relations CGI’d into a grim, desert-colored cartoon of conflict and oil-mongering. It’s vibrant and dizzying, and although it’s as queasy-making and hilariously reductive as the film that follows it, at least it’s interesting. In summarizing sizable chunks of Fahrenheit 9/11 with just a few digital swoops and some decontextualized outbursts of archival footage, it somehow manages to seem more ludicrous, more serious, and more objective than Michael Moore’s film. It’s Middle Eastern history as Nike commercial, an expressionist version of network news, with all of its high stakes, high production values, and high dudgeon.
But once we get the history lesson out of the way, The Kingdom can finally proceed with being what it really wants to be: a movie about swooping into action semi-legally, without much consideration, and with very little in the way of planning or preparation. Though Fleury’s investigation has the patina of docudrama credibility, with only the whiff of self-satisfied ethnocentrism (the Saudis are virtual savages when it comes to forensic science, a wrong that can only be righted by Chris Cooper’s blue-collar hillbilly FBI genius), what we’re really waiting for is bloody retribution. Being a little coy with a mildly interesting structural move, Berg saves all of the action until the third act, building with an hour of police procedural before exploding with a loud and extra shaky SUV attack, pileup, shoot-out, and chase sequence that is so awesomely conceived it almost distracts from the highly unpleasant (and rather suspect) Daniel Pearl-like scenario that eventually unfolds. The terrorists, taking one of the team hostage, laboriously attempt to perform an on-camera decapitation on one of “our guys,” and we cross-cut to the rest of the heroes who are racing desperately to save him. This is Berg’s coup de grace—which makes up fully 90% of all promotion for the movie—and it’s the type of sequence that is as old as the cinema and as effective as it ever was, when done right. And Berg does it right: tossing the audience’s emotions back and forth, stopping time with some dicey near misses, and building tension with moments of eerie quiet, rudely interrupted by rocket-launchers or kids with AK-47s or whatever.
It’s as good a recent action sequence as any I can think of, at least until you realize that Middle Eastern conflict, hostage-taking, decapitation, militant Islam, bullish American diplomacy, and multilateral ignorance are not so much fodder for popcorn movies as they are, for some, hard realities—and not very entertaining ones at that. And it’s quite easy to think that Peter Berg is playing all this for cheap thrills, for brazenly exploiting the cold facts behind the glossy surfaces of cable news for the sake of crass commercial entertainment.
Yet one wonders at times whether The Kingdom is actually intended as satire. Surely Jason Bateman’s character, a glib and thoroughly unspecial “specialist,” is the very epitome of the American missionary-tourist-soldier, more fresh-faced, pencil-necked, and ill-informed even than the U.S. diplomat played by Jeremy Piven. To out-Piven Piven himself is a rare feat on its own, but Bateman—sprawled on his cot reading The Koran for Dummies, backing up Team Fleury by cracking wise and searching the internet, and running perpetually afoul of guards and terrorists alike—is the model of a modern major U.S. foreign relations specialist. With Garner as the muscle, Cooper as the voice of experience, Foxx as the balls, and Bateman as the brains, this FBI unit leaves the overall impression that while the Americans can effectively and without question kill bad guys, they will inevitably bully their way in, blow up whole neighborhoods, offend people, and act irresponsibly in the process. Is this an act of political commentary that Peter Berg has smuggled into the multiplex inside a bottle of Hollywood formula? Or merely his action genre response to the Syrianas and Iraq in Fragments that we see these days? Does he even care either way?
On its most superficial level—which may be the best level at which to view it—The Kingdom is a good deal more Transformers than Syriana, a movie that drapes a crisp, lightly browsed copy of The Economist over an enormous pubescent boner for grinding metal, busted glass, and crisp gunfire. Every machine-gun crackles with an explosive, metallic report, every missile launcher emits a snakelike hiss, every windshield blows out beautifully, and every roadside bomb makes a really, really loud sound. But in the end The Kingdom is that cruelest of action movies: the self-loathing kind. Or to put it a less charitable way, hypocritical. Violence is its tease, and pacifist guilt is the reward you get for it. Late in the film, Jennifer Garner throws down with a husky, sweaty terrorist—even delivering the now-requisite, cheer-prompting knife-stab to the groin—and five minutes later, we are made to feel sorry for the terrorists, their kids, and so forth. Jennifer even offers one of them a lollipop. Violence breeds violence, we’re all human, the cycle continues, and so do the clichés. But it’s still more fun than reading The Economist.