Peter Berg’s The Kingdom is an incredibly frustrating movie because it can’t ever decide just what kind of movie it is. Ultimately, it’s a very good action movie wrapped inside a very bad Message Movie (which doesn’t even seem to know what its message is), and the mix just doesn’t work. It goes out of its way to establish itself as a Syriana-like serious examination of Middle East politics, even going so far as to open with a five minute documentary on the history of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The documentary is necessarily slight, but it’s well executed. Unfortunately, it sets the tone for an entirely different film than the one to come.
The Kingdom begins in earnest with a massive terrorist attack on an American housing complex in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia. Among the hundreds dead is an FBI agent. Back in Washington, Jamie Foxx briefs a team of other FBI agents on the attack, and they have a discussion on "why do they hate us?" I realize that the filmmakers need to get their exposition across somehow, but doesn’t the FBI circulate weekly memos on such issues so that schoolyard-level discussions among its rapid response teams are seldom necessary? Foxx pulls strings to have his team on the ground in Saudi Arabia to conduct an investigation of their own. The role of FBI agents overseas is a very interesting topic for a spy movie, and one rarely addressed realistically (although some Eurospy flicks had G-men inexplicably doing the job of the CIA). Despite a promising premise, though, The Kingdom quickly drops all pretense of realism.
The team, consisting of Foxx, Jason Bateman and spy stalwarts Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner, con-duct a sub-CSI investi-gation despite poor initial cooperation on the part of the Saudis. They don’t need to do any sort of impressive analysis to break the case wide open, or to demonstrate any kind of Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning. All they need to do is dig part of an ambulance out of a watery hole, and then read the name of the hospital that’s written on it. They essentially follow their clue to a nest of terrorists in a wholly unfriendly neighborhood and then proceed to kill everyone, Rambo-style.
If The Kingdom were content to be a solid but disposable shoot-em-up, I would have no problems with its many lapses in credibility. But since it strives to present itself so seriously (and begins with that documentary!), those moments become inexcusable. For example: after fighting hard to do the impossible and get his team cleared to be on Saudi soil, which we’re told is a huge diplomatic hurdle, Foxx responds to an unhelpful Saudi general by punching him out! I’m pretty sure that would not only undo all the good will he tried hard to establish, but possibly lead to war. His team is no better. Jennifer Garner insists on wearing tight, "booby-revealing" T-shirts, and gets offended when she’s asked to cover up. Wouldn’t an FBI field agent as well-trained as her character is supposed to be at least know and respect the customs of her host country, even if she didn’t agree with them? The newswomen who report from that part of the world all manage to dress in a respectfully conservative manner! When the Saudi customs officials give Jason Bateman’s character trouble because he has Israeli stamps on his passport, he gets surprised and offended, and immediately cops an attitude. Since anyone who watches a little TV knows to expect such trouble, I would imagine the FBI would also know, and refrain from sending an agent who traveled frequently to Israel. (Or at least issue him a different passport that didn’t reflect that fact!)
The action comes mainly in a self-contained forty-minute section near the film’s end, and it’s good action. It’s not quite up to the intensity of The Bourne Ultimatum, but it’s close, and shot in the same gritty, "put the audience right in the middle of it" style. It bears all the stylistic hallmarks of Michael Mann, which should come as no surprise since he produced The Kingdom. Still, it represents remarkable steps forward for Peter Berg as an action director in his own right. (If only this was an action movie!) Alias fans will be glad to see Jennifer Garner in full ass-kicking mode again, after a string of romantic comedies. Her hand-to-hand (and every other part) confrontation with one of the terrorists is the highlight of the whole movie.
Despite the appealing grittiness of the action, there still isn’t a trace of realism. A very small group of Americans invades an entire neighborhood of RPG-firing Arab terrorists and kills enough of them to satisfy even Sylvester Stallone. In the ultimate stab at escapist Hollywood wish-fulfillment, they also manage to net an Osama bin Laden-like mastermind in the process. If that was the kind of movie Peter Berg wanted to make, I really wish he had just made it. I have nothing against mindless Rambo-like action, just as long as it doesn’t put on airs. The Kingdom wants to be Rambo with morals. It doesn’t work. If it had kept its sights low brow, I would have enjoyed it. Instead, we go from all this shoot-em-up stuff to a pretentious wrap-up which attempts to pinpoint the cause of all the violence in the Middle East. The Kingdom desperately wants to appear smart when it would have made a much better movie had it been content with being dumb.
Some critics have taken The Kingdom to task for shamelessly co-opting horrific images out of recent and current events in the news for entertainment, and suggested that these events should remain off limits to action filmmakers. I disagree. Take The Kingdom to task for doing it badly, by all means, but not for attempting to make an action thriller against a modern-day geopolitical backdrop. The Cold War proved an extremely fertile setting for movies about international intrigue and espionage, even when the danger seemed most real. Though Bond and Bourne and Mission: Impossible have carefully avoided the very threats that keep real-life spies so busy these days, I think it’s certainly possible to make an accessible, mainstream action movie based on contemporary events. The Kingdom isn’t it, but hopefully something like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies will manage that trick with more success.