DVD Review: The Kingdom

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This is a review of the theatrical release, published on Sept. 12, 2007

"The Kingdom," about a terrorist attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, would seem to be another addition to the list of this fall's politically-charged movies. But unlike the upcoming "Rendition" or "In the Valley of Elah," Peter Berg's movie is no more than an action movie with an exotic backdrop. That would be fine, if only the movie were more exciting. It succeeds neither as a pointed political commentary nor as a taut thriller. With Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and Jennifer Garner heading the cast, the movie should generate some healthy opening-weekend business. But its long-term prospects seem iffy.

The title sequence does a nifty job of sketching the history of America's involvement in Saudi Arabia during the last century, from the discovery of oil to the emergence of Osama bin Laden. The film itself opens with a gripping set-piece -- a baseball game held in the American compound (populated mainly by oil company workers and their families) that is disrupted by a deadly terrorist assault. The FBI is charged with investigating the killing of Americans on foreign soil, but Washington honchos, including a craven Attorney General (Danny Huston), refuse to authorize any official American action. So a strong-willed FBI agent, Ronald Fleury (Foxx), assembles his own small team and heads off to the Middle East to investigate. While the Saudis are initially wary of these American interlopers, the leading Saudi officer eventually decides to cooperate with Fleury's team. They mine the crime scene for clues and interview witnesses, with the hope of tracking down the mastermind behind the attacks.

The relationship of the two lead investigators is the strongest element in the film. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan seems to have taken some inspiration from "In the Heat of the Night." The dynamic between the two detectives is exactly the same as in that Oscar-winning 1967 film. Fleury is the fish out of water in an alien world, and after some tense initial encounters, he and the local sheriff join forces to solve the crime. Foxx demonstrates his usual charisma, though the best performance comes from Ashraf Barhom (who previously appeared in "Paradise Now") as the humane Arab colonel.

Unfortunately, the other actors have less opportunity to shine. Jason Bateman (as the least experienced team member) and Jeremy Piven (as a slick American diplomat who might be a cousin of "Entourage's Ari Gold) do have a few funny moments. Garner has little to do, and Cooper barely registers at all. The biggest waste of the film is casting this superb Oscar-winning actor in a role that any B-level TV personality could have played just as smoothly. The fault is not with the actors; their roles are completely devoid of sharp character details. All we learn about Fleury is that he's a devoted father, which is established in a treacly early scene in which he visits his son's school.

The shallow script might have been salvaged by more dynamic direction. But Berg ("Friday Night Lights") films much of the action in close-ups with a jerky moving camera. The film cries out for long shots that would clarify the logistics. Berg simply thrusts us into the middle of the chaos, which might have been his intention, but the result is a vertigo-inducing ride that leaves a lot of the action unintelligible.

The excessive use of close-ups undermines the strong work of cinematographer Mauro Fiore and production designer Tom Duffield. The film ends by suggesting that lust for revenge can warp righteous American patriots as well as Islamic fundamentalists. Still, this earnestly even-handed message is a bit of a cheat. Given the heinous actions of the terrorists, audiences are primed to cheer when they finally get blown to smithereens. We might cheer more loudly if "The Kingdom" were a more effective piece of rabble-rousing.
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