News your connection to The Boston Globe
Movie Review

Political thriller with plenty of firepower

Maybe it’s a cheap shot to call ‘‘The Kingdom’’ ‘‘.‘Syriana’ for Dummies,’’ but it’s fairly close to the truth.

A taut, slickly made thriller about an FBI team solving a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, the film stars Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, is directed by the actor-turned-director Peter Berg (‘‘Friday Night Lights’’), and has been produced by Michael Mann.

That’s telling; the movie presents a Mann’s man’s world of international politics. ‘‘The Kingdom’’ is a provocative, visceral experience, an undeniable crowd-pleaser that at certain points will have audiences loudly cheering on the heroes. More thoughtful moviegoers may wonder what exactly it is they’re cheering for.

It’s possible that’s part of the game plan, of course — using a hard-boiled action flick as a Trojan horse to pick apart our assumptions and anxieties about the Middle East. If so, the horse x has a tendency to bolt.

A US base in Saudi Arabia — the desert kingdom of the title — has been bombed, a two-pronged attack that has resulted in the deaths of US civilians and rescue personnel. (The incident is based on an actual 1996 bombing.) The country’s ruling sheiks insist the investigation can be handled internally, but a group of FBI field agents led by Ronald Fleury (Foxx) bull their way in-country against every instinct of the State Department (represented most memorably by Jeremy Piven as an Ari-inflected bureaucrat).

Fleury’s team includes forensics expert Janet Mayes (Garner) and bomb specialists Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), all suppressing their connect-the-dot differences for the greater good of the mission. One of the dead was an FBI colleague, and they’re beside themselves with grief and rage.

Indeed, simmering righteousness is the motor that propels both characters and ‘‘Kingdom’’ forward, through obstacles tossed up by US diplomats, intransigent Saudis, Muslim terrorists, and endless cultural differences that the movie both respects and dismisses.

Fleury’s group is assigned a Saudi police escort/babysitter in the person of Colonel Faris Al-Ghazi, a cautious, sad-eyed figure played by the fine Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom (‘‘The Syrian Bride’’). His job is to keep the Americans from getting underfoot — to stall them, essentially — but, of course, everyone ends up working side by side. While we’re meant to sympathize primarily with the agents, Barhom gives Al-Ghazi’s hard-won decency a charisma that outlasts the movie. You come out wanting to see more of the character and of this actor.

Not that Foxx, Garner, Cooper, or Bateman are slouches — Garner in particular seems happy to be out of chick flicks and back in government service — but their characters are hemmed in by the conventions of Hollywood action-dramas. ‘‘The Kingdom’’ has a lot on its mind: it’s a police procedural, a culture clash, a Team America morale booster, a statement on the futility of violence — and an example of Hollywood big-screen violence at its most brutal and alluring.

Shot with the jittery propulsiveness associated more with Mann’s films than Berg’s, ‘‘Kingdom’’ builds in momentum until it boils over in a climactic sequence that batters and elates both characters and audience. Terrifically filmed, emotionally suspect, the last half hour pits the heroes against an entire neighborhood of terrorist sympathizers, culminating in a pitched hand-to-hand battle that could wring a war whoop from a Buddhist.

To what end, though? ‘‘The Kingdom’’ addresses our fears of a hostile foreign culture — our dread that American certainty and might can’t fix things this time — but it does so in the limited language of the multiplex. The movie ends on a plaintive can’t-we-all-get-along note, but at heart it’s a Charles Bronson flick. It mashes the revenge button the real world won’t let us push.

Ty Burr can be reached at

More from