Opening September 28, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom is part police procedural, part balls-to-the-wall, Black Hawk Down-style military action flick. However, when the movie does decide to reflect on the issue of violence in the Middle East, it actually makes some fairly astute observations, ham-fisted though their presentation might sometimes be.
The events that set the film in motion are devastating, both in scope and execution. Wahabi extremists, disguised as Saudi police, infiltrate an American military base outside of Riyadh, gunning down the men, women and children living there. Later, when an FBI first response team arrives at the scene to investigate the brutal attacks, a second, much larger explosive charge rips through the area, completely destroying the front of a building and killing hundreds of people.
Word of the attack quickly reaches the FBI who have jurisdiction over such acts of violence outside the US, and Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is assigned the case. He organizes a team with three others to investigate the attack. After pulling some strings and meeting with the Saudi ambassador, Fleury effectively goes over the heads of his supervisors and gains access without the consent of the Bureau. Fleury’s team is made up of Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Andrew Leavitt (Jason Bateman). Each of the team members possesses traits that would seem unremarkable in the West (Mayes’ gender, Sykes’ folksy demeanor, Leavitt’s wise-ass attitude) but which become points of tension with their Muslim collaborators. One of these collaborators is Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), a Saudi police officer assigned to Fleury’s team. Cultural issues largely dominate his relationships with the American specialists, but he respects their goals and shares with them the same desire for justice.
The ensemble performs well enough, considering the script doesn’t provide many opportunities for much character exploration. The significance of the protagonists isn’t in the nuances of their personalities, but rather in the Western archetypes they represent in a much more conservative Islamic state. Foxx’s performance is par for the course. He brings the same charisma to Fleury that he does to all his roles, but the performance is largely one-note. Jennifer Garner has a few good moments as a modern woman at odds with the social mores of a foreign culture, though not all that much emphasis is placed on it. Barhom gives the film’s strongest performance as Col. Al Ghazi, a man dedicated to bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice. His dialogue with Fleury throughout the movie establishes the film’s strongest themes, and Barhom gives the character a gentleness and humility that contrasts strongly with his admitted desire for vengeance, to kill those responsible for the attacks without the arbitration of judge and jury.
Fleury and his team navigate the political pitfalls associated with being Westerners in Saudi Arabia.
Local authorities are determined that the team should remain out of harms way, and with no real investigative power. This is the weakest part of the film, and it isn’t until Fleury meets with a prominent Saudi prince and gains access to investigate the bombings that the movie hits its stride. The final act sees the team going into hostile territory to recover one of their own.
The action is frenetically potent and briskly paced. The camera work is jittery but never confused, and serves to amplify the effect of the action. By its conclusion, the film comes full circle thematically, as it reminds the viewer of the reciprocal properties of violence. The effects of terrorism are more far-reaching than just the body count.
The lives of those who were close to the deceased have been impacted immeasurably by the loss of loved ones. The urge for vengeance is not unique to one group of people. It permeates cultural barriers, and affects both those who enforce the law and those trying to subvert it.
The most obvious and tempting way to cope with grief is to strike down those who caused it, but the film reminds us that it is exactly this mentality that perpetuates and escalates the cycle of violence in areas like the Middle East.
The Kingdom is an entertaining and thoughtful examination of acts of terrorism and their implications.
Though the screenplay leaves some possibly potent areas of reflection underdeveloped in favor of a few too many procedural and investigative scenes, it’s smart enough to get to the point when it matters.