It was broad fucking daylight! They blew up a goddamn softball game!
— FBI Special Agent Fred Manner (Kyle Chandler)
Everyone knows that assaults on cherished American symbols never end well for the assailants. Still, in the movies as in life, such assaults continue, always inspiring retaliation and righteousness. The latest in a long, slick line of can-do entertainment, The Kingdom is equal parts action movie, police procedural, and cross-cultural tolerance lesson. Boasting charismatic stars and a topical focus on terrorism, not to mention a pulsing Kanye West track (“Stronger”) laid over its pyrotechnic trailer, the film adds one more cagey detail — a hint of moral challenge to its own thrills-and-chills violence. But for all its gritty, po-mo energy, Peter Berg’s new film is strikingly old-fashioned, an A-Team update.
It didn’t have to be this way. The movie begins with a brisk history of Saudi-U.S. relations, premised on oil and shifting when it best suits the profits of both. The sequence ends with the ultimate downside to such mutual hand-washing — the destruction of the World Trade Center — then cuts to a softball game, a gathering of employees’ families at an American oil-company compound in Riyadh. The camera darts and watches from middle distances, not connecting with any particular faces. Then, the assault: the pastoral scene is interrupted by gunmen and bombers dressed as local policemen.
After several hectic, bloody, tragic minutes, survivors start calling home, specifically, FBI Special Agent Ron Fleury (Jamie Foxx). He happens to be telling stories to his son’s kindergarten class. The set-up makes him not only a good dad but also an effectively actionated counterpoint to President Bush — who notoriously sat in a Florida classroom, not reacting quickly to news of the attacks on 9/11. Ron, by contrast, sets to work instantly — though he does take a minute to reassure his boy that, even though there are “lots of bad people in the world,” cute little Kevin (Tj Burnett) is “not one of ’em.”
Anointed by anxious U.S. Attorney General Gideon Young (Danny Huston), Ron assembles a crack team — forensics examiner Janet (Jennifer Garner), explosives technician Grant (Chris Cooper), and intelligence analyst Adam (Jason Bateman) — and heads to Riyadh. Their arrival is marked by tensions under guise of diplomacy (“It’s a bit like Mars,” says Grant, by way of noting the “exotic” locale.) Badly represented by fast-talking local State Department official Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven), Ron’s team has to walk a line between barging in and seeming respectful.
Ron doesn’t always walk quietly (“I want in immediately, right the fuck now immediately”). But he does find ways around those Saudi regulations that the Americans predictably see as “backwards,” including efforts to curtail their tough-guy language (“Do not talk to me with this language,” implores a Saudi policeman), conceal Janet’s figure (“Dial down the boobies”), and restrict their access to the crime scene (essentially a bomb crater littered with vehicle and body parts). Ron insists they be allowed some freedom of movement to look for evidence, question witnesses, and even go off the compound in order to determine the bombers’ identities. Or rather, to confirm the identity of the local cell’s leader, because everyone seems to know right away that the head villain is Abu Hamza (Hezi Saddik).
(L to R) Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (ASHRAF BARHOM), Saudi Sergeant Haytham (ALI SULIMAN) and FBI team leader Ronald Fleury (JAMIE FOXX)
To offset the “bad Arab” vibe, the film includes a very good one, police colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). Earnest and sympathetic, Faris is Ron’s vehicle for “personal growth.” (To facilitate this process, Faris reveals that he spent four days at Quantico some years ago, and saw Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.) He’s also a means for the film to make an allusive point about the ongoing muck-up in Iraq (and be included with the other “important” Iraq-war-themed films being released this season). The initial assault on the compound was premised on the bad guys’ infiltration of Saudi law enforcement, a point that makes Faris frustrated and angry: like any American movie cop, he seeks payback. This makes him familiar to Ron, who is soon inspired to do homework (he reads The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Koran in order to learn something about his hosts).
Even as Ron comes to admire Faris, the film invites you to feel comfortable with him as well (a move eased, certainly, by Barhom’s excellent performance: amid The Kingdom‘s many annoying shorthands, his work is nuanced and compelling). Like Ron, he appears wit his children, domestic scenes suggesting not only that he’s a good dad, but also a decent husband to an appreciative wife. He and Ron share buddy-cop chatter, too, asserting their mutual desires to stop the terrorists. Ron admits to Faris, “America’s not perfect at all. I’d be the first to say it. But we’re good at this.” And Faris goes so far as to appreciate Ron’s embodiment of the “American way” when it comes to maintaining a crime scene, filling plastic evidence bags, and tracking detonators.
Still, and even if you want to spend more time with Faris working through his complex cultural and political contexts, the movie leans heavily on its procedural business. As the team has only 36 hours to build their case, they work fast and rather ruthlessly, inciting the outrage of local authorities and, apparently, terrorists. Efficient Janet makes discoveries in her makeshift lab, folksy Grant sloshes around in the flooded muddy crater, and Adam — well, he’s the designated “wildcard.” Mostly, this means he’s sarcastic and derogatory. It also means that his Jewishness makes him especially vulnerable to potential resentment or violence. As soon as this hint is dropped, early during their visit, you know it will provide for crucial, climactic conflict.
This takes the form of another terrorist attack and kidnapping. While it’s obvious the team will recover their man, the film underscores his brutal abuse by hooded captors, just to make sure you know they deserve all bad things coming to them. While the U.S. offensive is supported by the Riyadh police (and especially noble Al Ghazi), the focus is on the Americans’ brilliance: fierce, committed, and utterly selfless. And while the movie concedes to past U.S. errors and arrogance, it seems stuck on this primary point: when push comes to shove, Americans are right.