The title of The Kingdom refers to the nation of Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East, a region we have all been slowly learning about. There are serious things going on in that area, a fact no one needs me to inform them about. There are many reasons to make movies about nations like Saudi Arabia, the Middle East conflict is the defining issue of our time and there are many positions to take. But is “no position” an option? That’s the question that The Kingdom poses without trying to.
The film opens with a frightening act of terrorism; two Saudi men enter an area of Riyadh populated by Americans and begin a mass drive by shooting, but this is only a distraction, two bombs eventually go off killing hundreds of Americans including two FBI agents. Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) upon hearing this manages to persuade the Saudi government (without telling his superiors) to allow his team into the country’s border to investigate the crime. Also on his team are Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). In Saudi Arabia they are escorted by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) who tries to help them despite some cultural differences.
The strong cast does a lot to keep this movie floating. Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper live up to their award winning status and both are good here, neither are great but they do as much as they need to do with their fairly standard roles. Newcomer Ashraf Barhom is also quite good here, and Jeremy Piven has a fun turn in a small role. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner however, both seem out of place here. Bateman simply doesn’t feel right for this genre, and Garner is just generally poor.
Viewers who were offended by the mix of action adventure and real world tragedy in last year’s Blood Diamond should stay even further away from The Kingdom. The film has no real message in this film, there’s the occasional poignant moment, but there’s certainly no clear thesis in sight. I was going to say it played out like CSI: Riyadh, but a bunch of other critics beat me to it. There is a lot of procedural here, but the result of the investigation seems inevitable. In the last half hour the film devolves into an all out Hollywood action movie.
The action scenes are well shot, in a more appropriate environment I’d support them, they are just wrong for this story. People go to action movies for escapism, something no one gets from a story about Middle East terrorism. People go to more political “issue-tainment” for smart insights into world affairs, something that’s absent from this action movie. It’s a movie that tries to have it both ways and ends up pleasing no one.
There have been reports that forty minutes were cut from The Kingdom, and this may have been part of the problem. One can really feel the participation of test audiences in the creation of the movie. It may be that whatever point the movie was trying to make was lost in this editing. The movie could also have benefitted from increased character development all around.
Peter Berg, director of Friday Night Lights and The Rundown is simply over his head with this material. He has no idea whether he wants to make a political thriller, procedural, or action film and has no new insight into the Middle East. It says a lot that The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a film set in 1920’s Ireland, has more to say about the American War on terror than this film set in modern Riyadh. There are better films about the Middle East and better action movies out there. The Kingdom is just good enough to hold your attention but ultimately amounts to nothing. Possibly worth a rental, the action sequence really is shot well, but otherwise quite missable.
** out of Four