The Kingdom Kills Them All--Narrative, Point Of View, Thematic Or Even Rational Sense--And Lets G-d Sort Out The Rest
As Sting once noxiously fretted about the Russians, The Kingdom wants us to hope the Arabs love their children, too, while hitting its audience-bait climax with crack forensics expert Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) sinking a knife into an Arab extremist’s balls and chewing on his scalp. You might say this sends a mixed message. But at one point CIA super agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx in priapic mode) admits that Americans are also occasionally misguided. So there.
Directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) like a bad Paul Greengrass cover act, Kingdom leads off with a frenzied action-graphics credit sequence that’s also a high-velocity compression of 100 years of U.S.-Saudi Arabia political history that manages to be both reductive and incomprehensible, setting the tone for much that follows. The movie opens in the titular kingdom--Saudi Arabia--in a Riyadh housing project for American oil company workers guarded by exhausted Saudi troops whose ineptitude may have to do with tolerating the Americans playing Dave Matthews at full blast. A pair of suicide bombers appears, guns down women and children, and blows the entire complex to shit.
Luckily for the hapless, bickering Saudi governing forces, whose first reaction to the attack is to torture one of their own people--because what would a Middle East movie be without some sweaty man-on-man action?--there’s a crack team of CIA agents at the ready for whom It’s Personal This Time. Personal, because the aforementioned Fluery and Mayes lost friends in the attack.
After about 10 dull minutes of Beltway bickering about what to do, Fluery and Mayes get the A-OK to add folksy bomb expert Sykes (Chris Cooper) and wisecracking intel analyst Leavitt (Jason Bateman) to the team, and zip over to Riyadh, where they’ve got 48 hours to solve the case/enjoy some payback. The notion that anything can be accomplished in the region between these countries in 48 hours immediately places The Kingdom in the fantasy genre. But it’s the movie’s reliance on base xenophobia--at one point, Sykes describes the Arab world as akin to Mars--and misdirected vengeance fantasies that increasingly sours the proceedings.
With the consent of a Saudi prince, Fluery’s team is allowed access to the tragedy site under the supervision of Saudi Col. Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom from Paradise Now, giving the only performance that might not be described as rote). For a while, The Kingdom, which by now you can tell isn’t going to be good by any standard, covers procedural basics--Fluery’s door-to-door interviews, Sykes mucking about in the muddy explosion crater for clues, Mayes taking fingerprints from corpses, etc.
Things pick up when terrorists nab Leavitt. An extended highway mega-car crash sequence follows, which, like the extended village-smashing that follows, underlines the fact that Berg has no frickin’ idea of how to stage action. Also, these sequences build on what has already been driving us crazy--the constantly quaking, refocusing, pivoting shaky cam used to limn every scene. If ever you wondered what a movie might look like if a drunk camera operator filmed while being pummeled with rubber bullets, here’s your chance.
As the Fluery team blows the fuck out of a residential area in search of the terrorist kingpin who ordered the attack, we have, at no juncture, any idea where anyone is or where they’re heading. And Berg never tumbles to the irony here--that, rather like a certain, apparently endless current war, our American heroes are literally blowing up the village in order to save it.
Which leads to Berg’s press-release mission statement: Americans and Arabs finding common ground against extremism, the discussion of which necessitates a spoiler to follow forthwith. At first, Col. Al-Ghazi is the type of Arab we were already rolling our eyes at back in xXx: State of the Union, whose initial recalcitrance is inevitably overcome by the assumed great leveler of all humanity: American pop culture. Now that Berg has proven Al-Ghazi rational, he sets out to prove him human in a painfully earnest, mellow guitar-scored montage of him attending to his foxy wife and adorable children while doing assorted, nonthreatening Arab stuff.
Al-Ghazi does not become Fluery’s professional peer--at best, he becomes an apt pupil. And while the Fluery team comes out of the battle with nary a scratch, it is Al-Ghazi who must bloodily sacrifice himself for the common good, which suggests the Noble African-American may be in the process of being supplanted by the Noble Arab. In Hollywood, that passes for progress, while a closing grace note betrays a sudden cynical meanness as a film-framing mystery is revealed as a promise by both sides to kill each other forever. Last-minute bid for relevance or neoconservative boosterism? Fuck knows.