By Steven BooneThe Kingdom is a two-faced liar. It promotes the idea of bloody American exceptionalism in the same breath that it sings We Are the World. Just like those CNN reports that show U.S. soldiers high-fiving Iraqi kids while giving out candy, it uses sentimental music and editorial sleight of hand to insist that whatever our servicepeople and intelligence agents do Over There, they do it with love.
Peter Berg's procedural about FBI agents investigating a terrorist bombing at a US compound in Saudi Arabia generates most of its suspense from the effort to discern "good" Saudis from "bad" ones; and from the question of whether the Americans will come out of this adventure in one piece—all others be damned. This is that same old song of empire and paternalistic love-at-gunpoint that made John Wayne tip his green beret. But Wayne didn't live to see the kind of filmmaking that Berg practices. In the style of Traffic, Black Hawk Down, United 93 and Saving Private Ryan, The Kingdom uses chaotic visuals to enforce a sense of absolute realism that is more insidious here than any state-commissioned propaganda.
FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) arranges a top secret five-day trip to Saudi Arabia to find the perpetrators. His team: The old pro, Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), the smart-ass, Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), and The Girl, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner). Once on the ground in the authoritarian state, Fleury and company don't get much cooperation from Saudi officials who disdain Americans elbowing in on their jurisdiction. Saudi protocol ties Fleury's hands, as he must stick to his hosts' itinerary and await permission to probe crime scenes. Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum) is a distinct pain in the ass in this regard, until Fleury wins his trust over time.
The Kingdom celebrates American solipsism and arrogance, demonstrating that foreigners, particularly Ay-rabs, are due only a token respect. Their customs are to be tolerated, not understood, as time is of the essence when Americans have been killed. Completing the investigation trumps all other considerations. But Foxx and crew soon realize that they can't just bust in and take over, so they grit their teeth, speak a little more slowly, and cooperate with the Saudis' unreasonable demands. Meantime, Berg lets Foxx get his Miami Vice mirror-shades swagger on. His performance seems designed to illustrate what's special about Americans, our bluster and ignorance mitigated by a supercompetence you just can't get anyplace else: Fleury ultimately gets a Saudi crown Prince to grant his team more leeway by saying, "America is not perfect, but we are good at this."
Good at what, exactly? Keeping cool, for one thing. In the second worst scene of the movie, a joint Saudi-American raid on some suspected terrorists leaves the wrong suspects dead in heaps. Foxx and his crew survey the room of mostly teenage corpses with mild regret. When Jermey Piven shows up, for the second or third time, as their super-slick liason, he stops dead in the middle of his usual bullshit spiel to retch and hyperventilate at the sight of the bodies. At the screening I attended, audience members snickered, as if to say, "What a suit-and-tie pussy." The laughter was inappropriate, but the filmmakers' callous presentation told me that laughter is what they were going for.
There are a lot of cheap jokes, fish-out-water bits of business and solemn exchanges along the way. Jason Bateman plays an audience surrogate for civis who couldn't imagine firing an automatic weapon. He brings out Berg's gift for directing lighthearted comic ensemble scenes, constantly serving as the group's sarcastic, neurotic bullshit detector. Few actors can whine so charmingly. Colonel Al-Ghazi is the film's Gunga Din, a Saudi officer who bonds with Fleury not because they're at roughly the same place in their respective chains of command, but because, deep down, Al-Ghazi's an American-in-training. He hates terrorists and loves freedom. He grew up on American TV shows like The Green Beast, known in America as The Incredible Hulk. At first menacing and mysterious, he becomes a cuddly sidekick by the time he and Fleury chuckle over their love of Bruce Banner.
When the investigation's five days are up, the team must return home resigned that, because of the photo-op and spin Piven's character and other beauracrats have orchestrated around their failed raid, they will be greeted as heroes. But the terrorists finally come out of hiding and attack Fleury's caravan on the way to the airport. They kidnap Leavitt, precipitating the film's worst, most powerful sequence. The bad guys drag Leavitt to their hideaway and sit him down for a videotaped beheading. The movie crosscuts between Fleury's team shooting their way out of the ambush to go after the kidnappers and Leavitt's captors beating him, firing up the camcorder and waving the scimitar menacingly. Berg draws out the suspense agonizingly, as the evildoers have battery trouble (or something) with the camcorder while Fleury plows through traffic. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Training Day, Smoking Aces), the Vittorio Storaro of action flicks, throws the Private Ryan epileptic camerawork into overdrive. When Fleury and crew finally get to the hideout, they have to shoot up a city block full of bad guys. As the smoke clears, a soldier says, "This very bad neighborhood." Sykes responds, "No shee-it." So now we're watching Die Hard in the sand.
I haven't had such a queasy sensation of excitement and sorrow since the Klan's race-to-the-rescue in Birth of a Nation. What makes this whole shoot-em-up truly monstrous isn't the body count (standard for a Ho'wood action flick) but its monumental concern for the fate of one American FBI agent, mingled with its complete disregard for the nondescript Arabs milling through this firefight, multiplied by the impression of sobriety and humanism the film has spent 90 minutes struggling to convey. Nasty. As an acton stylist, Berg has been compared to Michael Mann, but the legendary shoot-out in Mann's Heat never lets you forget that innocent civilians (not just the favored protagonists) are in peril on a real city street, nor the terrible obscenity of it all.
Once inside the terrorist hideout, Mayes frees Leavitt and they both engage the enemy in a gory hand-to-hand struggle that had the audience I was in whooping and clapping. Catharsis never felt so ghoulish and cheap. But it gets worse. Spattered with blood, Mayes wanders into another room, where a little girl, a woman and an old man are cowering on sofas. They've heard the whole thing. When Mayes extends her hand to comfort the little girl, the child reaches out and inadvertently presents a piece of evidence that tells her the bomb mastermind is in this room. When Mayes sees that the old man is missing some fingers, she knows she's found her man. Another firefight, close quarters, brutal. The honorary American, Al-Ghazi, catches a fatal bullet but doesn't die until he's had his Gunga Din moment with Foxx, who let's him know he's dying with honor and whatnot. The film wraps up with the last of two solemnly scored montages that cut between the battered FBI agents returning home and the survivors of the raid reflecting upon the futility of vengeance.
It's not that The Kingdom doesn't know what it really wants (blood); its just afraid to tell you straight-up. You might bail. So we get the unique spectacle of a film that comes on all brotherly like Grand Illusion while stoking blind rage fit for a Rwandan radio broadcast circa 1994.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.