The Kingdom is one of the most remarkable and extraordinary movies of 2007; smart and thoughtful while never sacrificing tension, excitement or teeth-shattering action, Peter Berg has made a current events thriller that will stand in the years to come as a cinematic snapshot of our fucked up moment in time.
Berg has proven himself a very good director in the past; here he takes the next step forward (one which I hope the ever more short-tiled Hancock doesn’t erase) into a place that feels like legitimate greatness. From the film’s excellent opening credits, which presents a kinetic and graphic tour through the history of Saudi Arabia and US involvement with that country through the 9/11 attacks, until the final scenes of body-blasting gunplay, Berg is completely in control of the audience, leading us through a film that dances deftly between being a procedural and a political thriller and an action nail-biter. A film like this needs perfect pacing, and Berg has that; the movie begins with an attack on an American oil company compound in Saudi Arabia that is actually terrifying and then moves into marvelous light-touch characterization and political back and forth. The Kingdom really only has ‘action’ in the beginning and end, but everything in the middle is just as engrossing as any shoot out, as the small team of FBI agents who manage to be allowed to investigate the crime have to maneuver through political minefields while still trying to do the best investigative work possible to capture the monsters responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t want American investigators on their sovereign soil, but their own homegrown talent leaves much to be desired, torturing their own men who helped to stop some of the terrorists. Using political back alleys and blackmail, Jamie Foxx manages to get his own small team into Saudi Arabia, where they’re immediately met with resistance by the local investigators. The Saudi prince seemingly only wants them around as a photo op to show his country’s cooperation with America in the War on Terror.
The Kingdom isn’t a film filled with heavy character moments, so Berg wisely hired actors who can create whole rounded people with astonishing quickness. Foxx proves himself to be one of the most dynamically charismatic actors working today as Fleury, a good father and good agent who won’t settle for the obstructionist bullshit the Saudis throw at him. Chris Cooper remains the most reliable character actor in Hollywood, and he’s completely believable whether dispensing homespun Southern wisdom or aerating bad guys with an automatic weapon. Impressively, Jason Bateman is completely believable when the film calls for him to get physical; his character is a wisecracking whiner for most of the movie, but when the shit hits the fan Bateman projects a completely realistic desperate and fearful need to call up barely-remembered training. Jennifer Garner rounds out the team, bringing quiet toughness and delivering a killing blow that almost had my audience on their feet.
Playing against Foxx is Ashraf Barhom, an actor with only a handful of credits, as Al-Ghazi, the Saudi police chief who understands investigative concepts and wants to help the Americans, but is torn between them and his own customs and cultures. Barhom didn’t impress me at the beginning of the film; he seemed to be playing ‘The Good Saudi,’ a character who existed only to mitigate complaints about the high lead levels dealt out to hordes of faceless terrorists in the finale. But Barhom- and Matthew Carnahan’s excellent, layered script – surprised me by making Al-Ghazi a complex and real character. Barhom also impresses by holding his own on the screen against the wattage of Foxx’s dominant personality.
As Al-Ghazi grows as a character so does the film’s examination of the core culture clash in the Middle East, one that may be the most extreme in the entire history of American foreign misadventures. The film almost makes me wish the Middle East and the West had kept a polite distance throughout history because of the intractable nature of our differences, but it also makes a case for the idea that a little bit of understanding, patience and respect is going to go a long way. Thankfully Carnahan doesn’t make this case through speechifyin’. Just like he doesn’t have anyone come out and say how difficult it is for moderate, modern Muslims like Al-Ghazi today in a world where one side is extreme Islamic fascists and the other side is people who think everybody who worships Allah is a terrorist. Al-Ghazi is just squeezed in that spot and, unremarked upon, we see it.
If there’s one dark spot on The Kingdom it’s the presence of Jeremy Piven; here he’s playing Ari Gold as a State Department functionary, and he’s so out of place with the other, better and more natural actors that you’re almost embarrassed for him and his fake hair. Once upon a time The Piv was a joy to see in a movie, but today he’s become a one note clown who tears into scenes like Rock Hudson tore into twinks. He’s a major distraction, and comes close to scuttling a couple of important moments in the picture.
One of my favorite things about The Kingdom is that while Carnahan and Berg have created a believable scenario based on cutting edge current events and politics, they’re not afraid to throw all of that out the window for a well-staged, exciting and loud running gun battle that sees thousands upon thousands of rounds tearing into buildings, cars and people. Starting with a bone-crunching, terrorist splattering ambush, The Kingdom becomes an almost ape-shit action picture, making the movie an incredible hybrid of Syriana and Black Hawk Down. As our heroes stalk the bad guys through an apartment complex – often by quite literally blowing through walls – you can feel the movie flexing its muscles, saying, ‘Hope you’ve been enjoying the fine character work and fascinating political subtext, but now it’s time for some loud and violent catharsis!’
The Kingdom makes it seem so easy – why can’t all movies with guns and explosions be so smart, fascinating and well-made? Is it that Hollywood is unwilling to exercise their brains and their balls at the same time? Is it that the audiences really want mindless stupidity padding out the scenes between the action? I certainly don’t – I want a film that will make me sit on the edge of my seat, applaud some righteous ass-kicking and send me home mulling deeper thoughts. God bless Peter Berg, Matthew Carnahan and Universal for giving me exactly that.