The Kingdom (2007) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for graphic brutal violence and language
Running time: 110 min.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Ashraf Barhom, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven, Richard Jenkins, Danny Huston, Francis Fisher, Peter Berg
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan

Review published December 2, 2007

While I may have soundly trashed actor-turned-director Peter Berg for his terrible first feature film, Very Bad Things, I have to commend him for pretty much every effort he's made since.  While he hasn't turned in anything one would call a masterpiece, he has become quite a solid director when it comes to action movies.  The Rundown showed off his skills as an editor and conceptual planner when it came to balancing action and humor, so much so that a bland plot came to life with good comic timing and creative casting.  His follow-up, Friday Night Lights, while not strictly an action film, is memorable for its crisp direction and exciting sports footage.  I should point out that one of my main criticisms of that film comes from his choice to make his high school football games too action-oriented to believe, showing feats from amateur teenage players that would rival the most exciting plays in NFL history.

To a certain extent, I could also accuse Berg of going too far in the way of action to lend credibility to what appears to be a potential real-world problem in The Kingdom, but I have to admit that I still found the action scenes to be enthralling, energetic, and tantalizing.  The reason why they work comes from the commitment on Berg's part to allow the characters to come to life first, giving us little touches of their humanity and camaraderie, before letting it all rip in a showdown with the bad guys that will probably have practically everyone in the theater on edge.  The script by first-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), brother of director Joe Carnahan, is topical, absorbing, and believable, even if the main thrust of the US sending in an FBI taskforce, especially one which is more formidable in battle than Marines, into Saudi Arabia seems implausible.  That the four of them can get in and out of major confrontations with just a few bumps and bruises while rockets, grenades and countless rounds of ammo are constantly directed at them might indicate that Berg is relying too much on crowd-pleasing action flick clichés in order to make this thought-provoking film as entertaining as possible, but even so, at least they are damn fine in their delivery.

The plot itself is a work of fiction, although patterned somewhat on real-life terrorist attacks that have taken place in American compounds located in the heart of Saudi Arabia.  The American presence in that land has gone on for decades, which fundamentalist organizations within the very traditional Muslim country object to, as their Westernizing of the country they live in is seen as an evil force that must be eradicated.  The film shows a major plot to kill as many Americans as possible, as terrorists, disguised as police agents, infiltrate an American compound and proceed to shoot to kill civilians, and later, first-responders in a major bombing attack. 

One of the people killed happens to be a special agent for the FBI stationed in Saudi Arabia, and some of his cohorts in the Bureau back home refuse to sit idly by as the ham-fisted Saudi investigators bumble their way through another fruitless search for the criminal elements responsible.  A small contingent is assembled, led by Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Foxx, Dreamgirls), who are sent in to assist with the investigation and give advice, but find themselves taking a very active role once they discover crime scenes trampled and major leads going largely unnoticed by the local police.  However, they are defying not only strict orders from those with the power in the Saudi Kingdom, but they also prove to be sitting ducks waiting to be slaughtered by a powerful, well-orchestrated group of Saudi terrorists living and breathing right under the military's noses.

From the visually compelling opening credits, to the action-packed ending, The Kingdom may have certain flaws in terms of its simplification of complex world events, but taken as a pure piece of entertainment, it is certainly more efficient and intellectually stimulating than most actioners of its ilk.  Playing like a cross between a forensic science TV show and a Tom Clancy adaptation, the scenes might seem familiar, but the casting definitely merits comment, with each character playing to certain strengths, from the natural style of Jamie Foxx, the physical and charismatic style of Garner (Catch and Release, Elektra), the comic relief of Bateman (The Ex, Smokin Aces), and the salty confidence of Cooper (Breach, Jarhead).  It's a well-balanced team, not only on the screen, but in front of the camera as well.

So long as you don't come into The Kingdom expecting to get realistic depictions of contemporary and realistic post-9/11 scenarios, this thriller by Berg and Carnahan gives more than enough fire-power and food for thought to merit the time and money spent.  It's a bit Rambo at times, but even those action flicks from the 1980s had their political side that bubbled up underneath the surface, and certainly this is about as good a throwback as there has been in recent years.  It's not as earnestly appealing to public debate as, say, Syriana, but it does get the blood pumping.

Qwipster's rating:

©2007 Vince Leo