Shouldn’t terrorism be treated as crime — that is, as a civil rather than military matter? It’s a question that’s at the heart of the Iraq War debate, and it’s one raised loudly and clearly by “The Kingdom,” a realist thriller that mixes crowd-pleasing mayhem with provocative politics. Although burdened by far more procedure than plot, this Jamie Foxx vehicle — which owes a great deal to the high-caliber style of its co-producer, Michael Mann — is quietly jingoistic, in a way guaranteed to sell auds on the idea that what’s truly American is about more than disputed foreign policy.
It’s unlikely that the Saudi Arabian tourist board will be putting its imprimatur on this Peter Berg-helmed thriller: The entire kingdom within “The Kingdom” is portrayed as a seething snake pit of insurgent cells, the country’s legitimate authority holding on by its fingernails to any sense of civil order.
When terrorists slaughter Western families at a picnic thrown by an American oil company — and follow up with a blast comparable in size to theOklahoma City bombing — the local investigation, led by Col. Faris Al Ghazi (the wonderful Ashraf Barhom), is fated for a barrelful of frustrations.
The issue is whether trained investigators — contending with rogue elements that represent no sovereign nation — would be more effective than full-scale military action in terms of nailing an Osama bin Laden-style evildoer. In his screenplay, Matthew Michael Carnahan tries to fashion real drama out of realpolitik: Back in Washington, FBI investigators — including Ronald Fleury (Foxx), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) — are itching to fly into Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and track down the maniacs responsible, but the State Dept., ceding to the sensitive Saudi royals, forbids it. And so, in the long tradition of rogue missions by maverick Americans, Fleury and Co. go in anyway.
Rather than a “Rambo”-esque vengeance-is-mine retribution story, however, auds get something akin to “Adventures in Bureaucracy.” Al Ghazi tries to thwart Fleury’s every move for fear that the latter will upset the status quo, shaky as it is, and the American movie heroes, being American movie heroes, treat the poor Saudi colonel like an idiot. Eventually, stuff starts blowing up. You’re glad it does.
Where pic goes astray is inturning anonymous, indigenous peoples into ducks at a shooting gallery. In “Black Hawk Down,” the alleged good guys mowed down hundreds of faceless Africans; here, it’s Arabs, in what seem like comparable numbers. The sense of vicarious sport is the same; anyone in a caftan or a kepi is fair game.
Which is too bad, because “The Kingdom,” for the most part, tries to be a serious drama about an ongoing crisis, begging the question of whether a movie attempting to spark serious debate should be pandering to the worst instincts of its audience. On the other hand, this isn’t exactly “Frontline.”Berg adopts a faux-doc shooting style that becomes a tiresome exercise in the kind of handheld camerawork that perhaps once implied immediacy but now implies a lack thereof. “The Kingdom” doesn’t have the complexity of “Syriana,” nor the real-life pathos of “A Mighty Heart,” but it’s equally spasmodic, to no real end. More drama and less frustrated action might have kept this “Kingdom” from falling.
Pic was shot in Abu Dhabi and Arizona. Production values are top-notch.