On Saturday I got a sneak preview of The Kingdom. I found the trailer for the film fascinating, especially towards the end of the preview when the action escalates and U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” starts playing over scenes of Humvee car chases and rocket-launchers. I know that judging movies based on trailers is akin to the whole book/cover thing, but I couldn’t help feeling a little pumped up for the movie so I was pleased to be able to watch it a week earlier than most people.
The plot of The Kingdom follows a team of FBI agents who weasel their way onto the scene after a terrorist attack on an American compound in the titular country of Saudi Arabia. The FBI has lost one of their own in the attack, and so the agents have a personal motive to offer investigative aid to the royal family, despite the State Department’s efforts to keep (more) American boots off Saudi soil. The majority of the film deals with the team’s struggle to run the investigation as they are stonewalled by the Saudi authorities and escorted around by a sympathetic Saudi police inspector, and the investigative clues they follow to find the bombers. The last act involves the shit hitting the fan when one their own is taken by the terrorists and they have to get the agent back.
Directed by relative newcomer Peter Berg, The Kingdom boasts a ridiculously talented cast which includes Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman. They all turn in nice performances, but the overall film is lacking something. Most of the problem stems from the film’s overestimation of itself as “An Important Political Film”along the lines of Babel, Syriana, or Blood Diamond. when the final product is closer to something like Miami Vice. That’s not a slam. I thought Miami Vice was a awesome movie and I think The Kingdom is quite good. It would be even better if it could shed the sense of false gravitas that follows from the opening credits, which include a condensed history of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and America in an animation. There is a certain over-earnestness that the film suffers from whenever it starts to focus on the culture-clash tensions. Hilarity ensues when an under-utilized but always awesome State Department flack Jeremy Piven decides that Jennifer Garner’s rack is too much for the royal Prince, and so must be safely wrapped away. There are whispered messages to children and reflective conversations between the Saudi inspector and Jamie Foxx’s character that hint at the pretension behind the film’s message.
For the most part, The Kingdom sticks with the investigative thread, and I think the story is compelling enough to keep a tight focus on and let the important issue stuff drift in the background. I don’t want you to think the film goes way out on a limb and cuts to a classroom or board meeting where straw men hash out the American role in the Middle East. It’s (mostly) more subtle than that. But things do tie themselves up just a little too neatly for my tastes. That being said, The Kingdom delivered an entertaining movie with an intriguing premise and a good story. Its not entirely the film’s fault that it doesn’st say anything as politically cogent as its makers would seem to have liked.