Maybe its a cheap shot to call The Kingdom .Syriana for Dummies, but its 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.
Thats telling; the movie presents a Manns mans 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 theyre cheering for.
Its possible thats 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 countrys 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).
Fleurys 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 theyre 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.
Fleurys 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 were meant to sympathize primarily with the agents, Barhom gives Al-Ghazis 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: its 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 Manns films than Bergs, 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 cant fix things this time but it does so in the limited language of the multiplex. The movie ends on a plaintive cant-we-all-get-along note, but at heart its a Charles Bronson flick. It mashes the revenge button the real world wont let us push.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.