The Kingdom

Boffo, jaw-jaw, bang-bang movie for politicos.

By Steve Burgess 1 Oct 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee.

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Wisecracks, weapons and world affairs.

There are only so many twists you can put on an old routine. The Kingdom, starring Jamie Foxx and directed by Peter Berg, has a pretty good one. The Kingdom takes a standard if well-made police procedural and shifts it to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At a time when the internal mysteries and contradictions of the House of Saud are dominating world affairs, it's a neat little cinematic coup.

The Kingdom opens with a terrorist attack on a foreign workers' compound in Riyadh, loosely based on an actual attack that took place in 2003. The FBI believes that the man responsible is terrorist mastermind Abu Hamza (oddly, the filmmakers have selected a famous name for their villain -- the real-life Abu Hamza is the one-eyed, hook-handed British cleric who was eventually jailed for preaching hatred from a London mosque).

Fox plays FBI man Ronald Fleury, who will eventually lead a team including Jennifer Garner, wisecracking Jason Bateman, and go-to-character-actor Chris Cooper on a night flight to the desert. First though, there is a lot of Washington political maneuvering involving the FBI, the U.S. attorney general, the Saudi ambassador, etc. Once the team arrives in Saudi Arabia, much of the film focuses on the tension between Saudi and American investigators, and a careful but still distinctly unflattering portrayal of rigid Saudi society. It's no surprise that The Kingdom was actually filmed in United Arab Emirates -- watching the film's depiction of the FBI team hamstrung by Saudi officials, it's easy to imagine a similar scene involving the Hollywood crew and local chaperones.

Rambo meets buddy flick

Fox's Agent Fleury eventually finds a grudging ally in Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, previously seen in the 2005 Palestinian film Paradise Now). The Kingdom then briefly threatens to morph into a buddy movie, but instead manages to makes subtle nods to that genre without getting all Lethal Weapon on us. The action finally heats up when the investigators are targeted by the terrorists and must then attempt to thwart a videotaped beheading. The latter sequence has an almost Rambo-like feel -- just as Sylvester Stallone made Americans feel a little better by re-fighting the Vietnam War with a new outcome, The Kingdom offers wish fulfillment for all the people who ever desperately wanted to hit the pause button on one of those hideous televised executions.

Jeremy Pivens, famous as Ari, the agent, on Entourage, shows up to do a similar turn here as a nervous American functionary anxious to get the FBI on a plane out of town. Bateman gets most of the good sidekick lines as the resident insensitive boor.

After its boffo opening and before its boffo climax, The Kingdom is more jaw-jaw than bang-bang. This is clearly intended to be a prestige project rather than a noisy action thriller. As such it succeeds pretty well. But there is a cloud of disappointment hanging over The Kingdom. Having started with a courageous premise, you are left with the feeling that the movie ought to have been better. As it is, it's a solid, well-crafted policier and an interesting look inside the nation that is the fountainhead of those two dubious gifts, oil and Wahabiism. If the movie category is Modern Saudi-American Relations, The Kingdom benefits from being the first major release of its kind. File it under police thriller and it's not quite so special. Still worth a look, but nothing you haven't seen before.


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