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What’s one sign that a filmmaking technique has passed beyond expressiveness into cliché? When it can be slathered indiscriminately on all subjects. Behold how easily the jittery hand-held camera of Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights TV series, a football drama set in Texas, can be translated to Berg’s new feature, The Kingdom, an anti-terrorist action movie set in Saudi Arabia. If you still have inner-ear function after sitting through The Bourne Ultimatum, you can have your visual plane destabilized all over again. You may also wonder if that caffeinated camera is there to smear “grit” across an otherwise glossy surface.
Film products don’t get much slicker, in fact, than The Kingdom. A post-9/11 fantasy of self-empowerment, it begins with a terrorist attack on a U.S. housing compound in the heart of Riyadh. The FBI wants to fly its people over for some butt-whupping, and who should stand in their way? Craven U.S. government suits, that’s who, insisting that the mere presence of American agents on Saudi soil will be viewed as provocation by the international community.
Those suits haven’t reckoned on Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), a head-knocker who’s also a sensitive guy willing to be a show-and-tell exhibit for his young son’s class. Fleury manages to wangle a top-secret invite to Riyadh, where he brings a team of elite operatives to smoke out the Islamic nutcase behind the assault. Initially balked by Saudi restrictions, the superagents soon pick up the scent, and when one of their own is taken, their rescue attempt takes them unexpectedly into the heart of the terrorist underworld.
Like his most obvious influence, Paul Greengrass, Berg is a whiz at exposition on the fly. The entire history of U.S.-Saudi relations is efficiently sketched over the opening credits, and the political parameters are in place before five minutes have passed. Except for a rather sentimental fixation on young children, the momentum never slackens, and the question never varies: Where is the next bomb (or bullet or missile) coming from?
No one, in short, will mistake The Kingdom for high art, but it’s fairly high commerce—and it comes with commerce’s compromises. For instance: The casting of Jennifer Garner as a forensic scientist who is, on the one hand, brilliant and, on the other, shocked to learn that snug T-shirts are not appropriate attire for greeting Saudi princes. (Far more persuasive is the demolitions expert played by Chris Cooper, who grows ever more comfortable in his gnarly hide.)
The Kingdom runs into trouble mainly when it strays beyond action parameters. Credit Berg and first-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan with wanting to address the fallout of U.S. colonialism. But why do they enact that colonialism in the same breath? Yes, it takes a good boot in the rear from those whip-smart Americans before the know-nothing Saudis get their act together. In one key scene, Fleury hands the attack detonator to a Saudi police colonel whose whole demeanor practically screams, “Whaaa?”
This particular character is saved from being Jamie Foxx’s Gunga Din by the grave dignity of Middle Eastern actor Ashraf Barhom. Not so long ago, Barhom (along with Ali Suliman, who plays Barhom’s junior officer) appeared in the 2005 Palestinian film Paradise Now, which, without actually depicting a single death, managed to be more suspenseful than Berg’s film and far more thoughtful in its analysis of the terrorist mind. The Kingdom, by contrast, prefers the kicked ass to dissected ashes. And while it has the temerity to suggest that terrorist and counterterrorist impulses spring from the same well, it cannot escape the trap of being state-of-the-art Hollywood entertainment that’s built around the pleasure of plugging ammo into bad Muslims.