With Michael Mann producing and Peter Berg directing my expectations were high for “The Kingdom” a polite bit of new world fantasy that follows four FBI agents into the toughest areas of Saudi Arabia to find the terrorist that has attacked an oil compound housing hundreds of American workers and their families. It isn’t the initial attack that brutalizes you but the self seriousness this action film takes in it’s enjoyable but awkward groping around to find relevance in entertainment. It partially succeeds.
We’re treated to a nicely done opening sequence in which we witness the seeds for 9/11 being planted 30 years before. Information I guess I was aware of but having it presented to me like this was very effective and made the playing field for the movie more grounded than it deserved to be. So these four FBI warriors led by Jamie Foxx, but including Jeniffer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, go into the maelstrom, and because of that opening we understand the fear and trepidation. In Saudi Arabia they run into just as much red tape as they ran into while trying to get over seas to the blast site. I welcomed the incredible dialogue shared between the head of FBI and the Attorney General. Pretty much all of the dialogue was as welcome as a Gershwin composition. The funny thing though, to give the exposition “get to know the characters dialogue” gravity, all of the characters speak in heavy hushed tones, until things start exploding. But like the red tape they cut through to get there we expect them to cut through the Saudi’s red tape as well. And when they do it becomes CSI Saudi Arabia for a time. To me from the beginning to around this part of the film, I found it to be very interesting. I was witnessing another culture and this culture was being humanized for me. Humanized in particular by the police officer put on duty to baby sit our heroes, played wonderfully by Ashraf Barhom who single handedly steels the screen from our American star power.
Part of the reason for this is that his Colonel Faris is the most developed character in the film. Each actor does a fine job of keeping up but are mainly relegated to focusing on the importance of the situation. They keep up by keeping their characters fairly singular. Foxx plays the hard ass but caring leader of the group, Garner the butch woman, Cooper the West Virginian hands on the job kind of guy and Bateman the wisecracker. Though he did have some great lines, it was a terrible waste of Bateman’s talent…why won’t someone give this guy a role to contend with, thankfully he has two more movies coming out soon.
But let’s get back to the idea that this is a situational film. They set out looking for an infamous bomb maker. Looking for someone when no one wants you there is difficult, but they manage just fine. The last half hour of the film boils down to a big bloody action shoot-out. It’s well filmed and realistically performed. But it takes the reality this film tries to bury itself into and turns it into that nice piece of fantasy I was referring to. Isn’t action safe and fun! In the last seconds of the film though a double set of dialogue was given that originally made me think that all the action was for a reason, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was a cheap sleight of hand. For a half an hour they allow you to enjoy the action of the film and to cheer when the bad guys are blown to smithereens. Then they undermine all of it by trying to make us see that not only are both of our cultures humanized but also demonized with the idea that we believe a violent “kill all” mentality is the only thing that will save us, but, wait, didn’t no more than 5 minutes ago they want us to enjoy the “kill ’em all action”. But wait, maybe they wanted us to enjoy it so that you could think about all of the horrible things you enjoyed while watching brains splatter and bloody chunks of flesh fly while the credits rolled. Or maybe they were being ironic? We do it for the right reasons, they for the wrong. But I wouldn’t put such a simple minded idea into the mouths of such intelligent filmmakers. What it boils down to is a cheap, albeit, clever trick and one that hardly works, because I still enjoyed the film more than it made me think. Because I’m not honestly sure what it was about, or what it was trying to say. Maybe that action is fun in the movie theatre, but not in real life? I suppose I can buy that. But then I ask, why did the action have to be fun in the movie theatre?
My other big problem with this film and with several films that have been coming out is the ease that I have in realizing where the film is headed long before it gets there. There was several moments in which I thought to myself, oh, that’s that character, and that character is probably going to die. And one hundred percent of the time I was correct in my assumptions. And because of that I felt insulted when the script didn’t only give me one revelation (that was so obviously planted early on) but two in these final moments of the film, as if to say, yes we still gotcha! It really takes away from the surprise of the film to feel it out and the emotional weight that the events could otherwise hold. This made the final few moments after the climax mostly gloss and no substance. It’s a mixed bag boys and girls. It wasn’t long ago that I watched “Three Days of the Condor” for the first time. And I remember thinking to myself how smart a film, how rich the characters were and that they were motivated by the politics they dealt and how relevant it still is when concerned with politics of oil and gas prices today, which is many of the same reasons why “The Kingdom” as a film exists, and the conflict over seas rages on. If only our films took a step back from the over the top Bruckheimer style of action and gave us some action that was dangerous and a little less heroic. Perhaps then the meaning of this films would pack a little more punch.