Monday, October 8, 2007

The Kingdom


Comes with a Hail of Bullets

There has been a lot of gunplay in movies during September 2007. Clive Owen, Russell Crowe, and even Jodie Foster have all had their hand in the armory and come out shooting. Now we get The Kingdom, Peter Berg’s story about a team of FBI agents who go to Saudi Arabia to solve a terrorist bombing. What starts out as a crime procedural, ends like a war movie. There’s some shoehorning of important themes and modest character development, but at it’s core this is a tense, violent action picture, and on that level it works.

There has been a terrorist attack at an American compound of oil workers in Saudia Arabia that has killed over one hundred people. Being the duty of the FBI to investigate these kinds of crimes perpetrated on U.S. citizens abroad, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) wants to take his specialists and go in. They are forbidden, however, when deemed they’d be just the target that terrorists would zero in on. Fleury balks and goes in anyway, teaming with the Saudi Government and Chief of Police Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who seems to be blocking their investigation of the crime. Can the agents solve the crime in the five days allotted, or are they just being set up themselves?

The nicest surprise about this film is the relationship between the American agent and the Saudi cop. Like the Foxx character, we are suspicious of Al Ghazi’s motives (some American bias in me, perhaps?), but the two men become friends and really bond. Faris is by far the most complex character in the story, and he is given a lot of screen time. Newcomer Barhom plays him extremely well, and like Fleury, we grow to like him and trust him.

Foxx (Dreamgirls) is serviceable in his leader role, and the rest of the cast is fine, if underdeveloped. The team consists of some one dimensional types all played by good actors. There is the Crusty Vet (Chris Cooper), the Wiseguy (Jason Bateman), the Hot Girl (Jennifer Garner), and the Sweaty Ambassador (Jeremy Piven). All work well together, but their portrayals are subverted by the plot machinations that move so fast there is little time to get to know these people.

As mentioned, this is an action movie, and Berg (Friday Night Lights) keeps things ticking, especially in the last act. When the bullets fly, The Kingdom is at its best, creating real suspense that I haven’t felt since The Descent. Some things transpire that create real urgency for our heroes, and we are right there with them, on the edge of our seat. This portion is directed with head-spinning camera work that emphasizes the disorientation of combat--it’s visual adrenaline.

The problem is, the rest of the film is directed this way also, with what looks like an epileptic cameraman. This “style” is all the rage these days (see The Bourne Ultimatum, Gridiron Gang), with hyperactive panning, quick zooming, and jumpy handheld photography being the norm. It works when portraying action, but it’s really distracting the rest of the time. Where is the contrast of styles? Where is the tripod?

The Kingdom is an effective visceral rollercoaster. What it lacks in restraint and depth, it makes up for in sheer thrills. The relationship of the two leads is great, and that Barhom guy is perfect. While the movie tries to be more self-important than it really is (Munich it’s not), it is still worth seeing. Just take it for what it is, and don’t look too hard for enlightenment.

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