Director : David Cronenberg
Screenplay : Matthew Michael Carnahan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Jamie Foxx (Ronald Fleury), Chris Cooper (Grant Sykes), Jennifer Garner (Janet Mayes), Jason Bateman (Adam Leavitt), Ashraf Barhom (Colonel Faris Al Ghazi), Ali Suliman (Sergeant Haytham), Jeremy Piven (Damon Schmidt), Richard Jenkins (James Grace), Kyle Chandler (Francis Manner), Frances Fisher (Elaine Flowers), Danny Huston (Gideon Young)
In dealing with the hot-button issues of terrorism, Middle East relations, and the United States' perceived role as world policeman, The Kingdom is in the position of having to strike a particularly delicate balancing act in satisfying the action-junkie set while maintaining enough of a political veneer to make some of its philosophical quandaries about the nature of human violence stick with you in the end. First-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan stacks the deck a bit by drawing you into a lengthy crime investigation that detours into violent action spectacle before finally arriving at a contemplative moment that drives home both shared humanity and the fundamental problem of violence as a solution to anything. The cynic in me wants to call the whole thing hypocritical, but the fact that the ending, which is the equivalent of a philosophical sucker punch, has stayed with me so long suggests that, on some level, it works.
The title of The Kingdom refers to Saudi Arabia, whose close relationship with the United States is explained in Cliff Notes fashion in a vertiginous, rapid-fire graphic display during the open credits. The story commences with a terrorist attack on a well-guarded compound in Riyadh that is home to American oil employees and their families. Thus, the film immediately strikes at current fears of how radical Islamic terrorists might successfully attack Americans, although it is tempered by the fact that it takes place on Saudi soil, which provides a certain amount of comfort for anyone not living in the Middle East. Still, the image of terrorists machine-gunning innocent-looking people walking their dogs and self-detonating bombs in the middle of a baseball field are gutsy, and director Peter Berg stages them with intensity and gusto. He means business.
We are then introduced to the members of an FBI investigative team: lead agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), forensics expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), medical examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and force-fed comic relief Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). They immediately want to go to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack, but politics demands that the U.S. stay out of it since it was a Saudi crime and increased American presence could be perceived as an insult and put more American lives in danger. With some blunt political maneuvering, Fleury manages to secure his team a couple of days on the ground at the crime scene (which is now a massive hole in the ground surrounded by blown-out buildings that eerily recall Oklahoma City). Their ability to investigate is significantly hampered by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), whose assignment is ostensibly to protect them, but whose real role is to control them. Yet, as countless movies have already shown, determined Americans will persevere in the end, and it's not terribly surprising that Faris not only ends up helping their investigation, but befriending Fleury on a personal level.
For much of the film's running time, the story centers on the investigation as Fleury and company attempt to determine how the attack was carried out and who was responsible. The tone shifts dramatically in the final third when they are ambushed on the highway and Adam is hauled away by the attackers. The film then develops into a quick-pulse beat-the-clock scenario in which Adam is held in an apartment while masked terrorists set up video equipment and begin making what will surely become another grisly recording for Internet distribution. Make no mistake, Peter Berg is a superb action director, and he brings a relentless intensity and gravity to the violence. Unlike so many action sequences, there is a sense of real danger in The Kingdom, and the death of so many innocents in the opening reel creates the real possibility that one of the main characters could die.
Without revealing too much, I will say that, at the end of the gunfire and bloodshed, most audience members will feel satisfied that justice has been dutifully carried out, which is ultimately the film's real problem. Mapping geopolitical turmoil onto the action genre is a long-cherished tradition in Hollywood, but it is usually done with a simplistic Rambo-esque mindset that sharply and easily divides peace mongers and war hawks. The Kingdom wants to have its cake and eat it, too, in being an action spectacle that rewards jingoistic desires to see the Americans righteously and efficiently kill the foreign villains while questioning the veracity of those very desires. Whether Berg intended it to or not, the action in The Kingdom is hard and gratifying, and the preview audience with whom I watched it (composed almost entirely of college students) never cheered so loudly as when, following a brutal fight, Jennifer Garner rammed a knife into an enemy crotch. Maybe it's just movie-trained reflex, but maybe it was also intentional: Get them cheering and then, in the final moments, provide a coda that challenges that response. The fundamental question is whether audiences will leave The Kingdom thinking about the violence or just high on it.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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