Movie-Hype #725 - THE KINGDOM
The central question we are all wondering (at least, I hope we are wondering) is not answered, is not even asked until the very last line in THE KINGDOM. The movie, about a mass killing of American civilians in Saudi Arabia (and a small elite FBI team who goes there to solve said killings), is slick, fast-paced, entertaining and with a veneer of social conscience. (More on that in a moment.)
Directed by Peter Berg (more known for his acting, but also an up-and-coming director), and written by Matthew Carnahan, THE KINGDOM takes us to the desert to investigate brutal killings that have taken over 100 people. As one of the characters says, “it’s what a murder investigation would look like on Mars.”
It would be beyond presumptuous to think that THE KINGDOM offers any real insight into what life is truly like in Saudi Arabia, but at least they try to give us a glimpse. The sybaritic opulence of palace life (where birds of prey are prized beyond measure and go for hundreds of thousands of dollars) is counter-balanced by a society where it seems like every other person is armed.
The FBI team sent to figure things out finds themselves continually frustrated by bureaucracy and shifting agendas (both the Saudis and ours). You have not seen red tape until you have seen it wrapped around the butt of a machine gun. As my dad said to me after yet another delay in finding the killers, “You can see why it’s so hard to get things done over there.”
Jamie Foxx leads the FBI “team”. He does fine, as does Chris Cooper (who basically plays Chris Cooper) and Jennifer Garner, whose sole inclusion (as far as I can tell), other than being very beautiful, is how many problems a strong assertive woman—with an uncovered head!—would cause in downtown Riyadh. Also on the team is Jason Bateman, of Arrested Development fame. I was curious why a man known for comedic work would show up in a political action thriller, but his smart-aleck antagonism steals every scene. This guy should be cast in everything.
(Jeremy Piven has the same task—bringing comic levity—as a state department attaché in Saudi Arabia, but is completely wrong for the part and distracts every moment he is on screen. It’s not Piven’s fault—I am sure that is why they got him—but Bateman was enough hilarity. Should have gone more serious.)
Suspension of Disbelief: If they were going to 0 (hyper-real) you would have to roll your eyes quite a bit. As it is, I think you grade about a 4. In some ways, this is more of an idealized look at how we wish we could investigate the murders that take place over there.
Genre Grade: It would be a mistake to classify THE KINGDOM in the SYRIANA category. This is more like THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT crossed with a good dash of BOURNE. We will call it Middle East Political Action Thriller (trust me: this genre will only get bigger as oil stays with us), and give it a B.
Sex/Drugs/Rock&Roll? – Sadly, Jennifer Garner never has one of those Alias-esque moments where she needs to take off her clothes. And the Middle East is not exactly a hot bed of stripper poles. However, there is a good deal of language and a fair amount of brutal violence. I do not care how liberal you are (cough cough Suzanne cough cough), DO NOT let your kids watch. Fine for adults who do not mind the occasional car bombing and threats of beheadings.
Pantheon Percentile (the percentage of all films ever that this film is better than): One of those films that the more I think about it, the more problems I have with it. That said, the moment the movie was over, I felt good, having enjoyed the experience. Therefore, as long as you do not over think it, not a bad couple of hours. 70.
The first two-thirds of the film are tautly paced, as we struggle along with the team, wondering if they will be able to solve the crime and keep safe. Then we go into Michael Bay mode, complete non-stop action, for the final 40 minutes. At first, I was disappointed, liking the cat-and-mouse of the thriller, but I have to admit they pulled off the scenes admirably. The adrenaline was high, the scenes built upon one another and delivered, and Jennifer Garner showed that maybe she was brought along because of her years in the CIA. (I mean, any girl who can do THAT with a knife is okay by me.)
This brings us back to the politics, to the “message.” Actually, the opening credits offer more in the way of message than anything that comes after: a brief modern history of the Arabian Peninsula. It is fascinating, and not to be talked over with a friend as you wait for the action to start. By the end, we have that question I mentioned, the one that we should want to know: why do the killers want to kill Americans so badly?
The movie’s answer—though undoubtedly true—comes a little late for moralizing, at least in this case. If you were going to make THAT movie, you should have made it all along. So maybe it is a cop-out.
Then again, maybe the filmmakers just want to give you a nugget to ponder as the credits roll. I guess that is not so bad. After all, before you watch THE KINGDOM, I bet you spend almost zero of your time thinking about Saudi Arabia, and what the people there might think of us here. If that percentage goes up at all, it cannot but be a good thing.