by Jeff Meyers
"An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind." Mahatma Gandhi
What does a well-intentioned director to do when he's given $80 million and Jamie Foxx for his Middle Eastern action-thriller? Does he expand on the morally rocky terrain Stephen Gaghan presented in Syriana? Or does he deliver the chest-thumping thrill of Top Gun? Well, if the cheers Jennifer Garner got at The Kingdom's screening for her brutal mano-a-mano knife-to-the-crotch fight with a Saudi terrorist is any indication, filmmaker Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) has given proponents of the war in Iraq exactly what they want: Some good 'ol American ass-kicking.
And it all started so promisingly. Beginning with one of the year's best credit sequences a condensed 70-year history lesson of U.S.-Saudi relations the film precipitously falls from geopolitical grace to depict a horrifying terrorist attack on an American oil company housing project in Saudi Arabia. Gunmen open fire on a family-friendly softball game, chaos ensues and 100 Westerners many of them children get blown to hell by suicide bombers. Not to worry, FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is on the case.
Using his pull and muscle to bypass bureaucratic pussyfooting, Fleury and his team of investigators Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman are off to the Middle East where they've got five days to take names and crack heads. Unfortunately, while incompetent Saudi authorities contaminate the crime scene, a cowed-but-noble Col. Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is under strict instructions to keep the Americans on a very short leash. But Fleury and crew don't roll that way. Once they've won the hearts and minds of their law enforcement inferiors, they dazzle 'em with crackerjack police work (and Garner's T-shirt-straining breasts), turning The Kingdom into an episode of CSI: Riyadh.
By Act 3, Matthew Michael Carnahan's superficial script detours from its police procedural into a hail of gunfire, explosions and the threat of an Internet-broadcast beheading. Shifting gears from serviceable thriller to jittery Jason Bourne-like action, Foxx's quartet goes all Rambo on terrorist ass, operating like an elite Special Forces unit, mowing down anyone in a caftan. Much as Black Hawk Down reduced Somalis to faceless targets, Berg turns a neighborhood of Arabs into a video game shooting gallery.
But not to worry; The Kingdom knows the difference between a good Arab and a bad one. See, there's a concerned Saudi prince. And there's a troubled former bomb maker. And let's not forget the bonding between Foxx and Barhom's characters, two police guys who love their kids almost as much as they hate the bad guys.
Berg's A-list cast, though mostly wasted, scowls with the best, elevating two-dimensional dialogue into laidback repartee.
Crammed between the handheld faux-doc action sequences which increase heart rates as much as they induce confusion The Kingdom tosses out a few intriguing political thriller nuggets. While Saudi and U.S. officials are depicted as disinterested in pursuing terrorists, questions about U.S. economic interests in the region and the ultimate cost in terms of human life arise. Unfortunately, serious debate is pushed aside in favor of American heroic swagger and Cineplex-pleasing shoot-'em-ups.
Ultimately, Carnahan's story has neither the complexity nor real-life emotions to justify its political trappings. Berg struggles to paste on a final heavy-handed message about the root causes of violence here that just as Muslim extremists breed hate in their children with cries for a holy war, so too do Americans casually and arrogantly brag of killing the "bad guys" but it's too little too late.
There's an eye-opening moment in The Kingdom's bravura history lesson. Through archival clips we learn that oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia while men were drilling for water. It prompts the question: What would the world look like if, indeed, water had been found instead? While it's doubtful the horrors of 9-11, suicide bombers and the travesty in Iraq ever would have occurred, one thing is for sure: We all would have been spared The Kingdom.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.