Sep 26, 2007

MovieReview: "The Kingdom"


What begins as a specifically grounded political thriller in "The Kingdom" gradually turns into an extremely well-crafted but rather formulaic actioner that could have been set in various countries, against different political conflicts, rather than Saudi Arabia where this particular saga takes place.

That said, actor-turned director Peter Berg continues to show progress as filmmaker, here benefiting no doubt from his ace producer Michael Mann, who must have exerted influence on the film's striking visual style, manifest in fast-moving, hand-held camera, brilliantly orchestrated sound effects, and other technical aspects.


Handsomely mounted, if calculated and manipulative, "The Kingdom" also benefits from a stellar cast, headed by Jamie Foxx (Oscar-winner for "Ray"), who gives a more likable and commanding performance than he did in Sam Mendes's Desert Storm military actioner "Jarhead," which divided film reviewers.

Some critics may have reservations about the movie's gung-ho politics and its pro-American slant in both text and subtext. However, with the right marketing and handling "The Kingdom" may become the first 9/11 movie that's a commercial hit, embraced by the large populace regardless of specific political orientations. The movie will be released September 28, just two weeks after the sixth anniversary of 9/11.

"The Kingdom" is Peter Berg's biggest production to date, with a considerable budget ($70 million) and state-of-the art technology. As a high-voltage crowd-pleaser, it's more in the vein of Berg's former hit, "Friday Night Lights" than his earlier noir films, such as "Very Bad Things," which was pretentious.

"The Kingdom" should test the concern of Hollywood producers over the commercial viability of political movies, the whole issue of whether the public is "ready" to see 9/11 movies, after "United 21," "World Trade Center," and "A Mighty Heart," to mention some recent studio-made films that failed to find appreciative public. Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" might be the only (modest) success, at least compared to its budget and level of expectations.

While he may lack the prestige of Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Michael Winterbottom, and Robert Redford (helmer of the upcoming "Lions for Lambs," starring Tom Cruise), Berg is a craftsman who delivers the goods of a uniquely American movie, a genre work that combines conventions of political thrillers, cross-cultural features, male-buddy films, and combat pictures with diverse teams at their center.

A short pre-credit sequence chronicles with title cards and newsreel footage the political history of Saudi Arabia from the 1930s to the present--the country's control of oil supplies and shifting diplomatic relationship with various U.S. administrations. After that, we witness a huge suicide bomber explosion, two explosions, in fact, that kill innocent American civilians and Saudi soldiers too. Two of the Saudi African officers are shot in cold blood by masked men while sitting in their vehicle.

Cut to Washington D.C and the world of diplomacy, represented by the likes of influential socialites, intellectuals, and soft politicians. Predictably, the U.S. leaders want to handle the crisis with quiet, discreet diplomacy rather than retaliatory action or aggressive revenge.

A professional group of FBI operatives asks to be transferred immediately to the catastrophe site in order to investigate the terrorist attacks. After some pro-and-con deliberations, their wish (more of an insistent demand) is fulfilled, and conditions and limitations are set to a mission that's highly risky, both politically and personally.

Team's head FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Foxx) can't conceal his anger that the terrorists got on a presumably well-guarded, sealed-off American colony and blew the place up, indiscriminately killed numerous men, women, and children. There's another, more personal motivation for task--one of their colleagues was killed.

Fleury's elite team is diverse, composed of a tough woman, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner); the eccentric but efficient Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and reluctant hero Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). Once the quartet makes their way into the Saudi Arabia, the ambassador grants them only five days, which makes their task all the more urgent.

Rather quickly, Fleury and his bunch realize they are there on a good-will mission, one without much authority, investigative and otherwise. American diplomat (Jeremy Piven, of TV's series "entourage," extremely good here) "advises" them to meet with the Prince and his entourage, visit the site and take some photos—-in short, enjoy themselves as tourists. After protests, the group is allowed only five minutes on the site of the disaster, but is forbidden to touch any object or to talk to any of the survivors. Though the explosions occur in broad daylight and in front of civilians' houses, the diplomats and politicos of both countries claim that there are no witnesses to the bombing. Fleury--and we Americans-- know better.

The team is assigned a Saudi Police Captain, Sgt. Haytham (Ali Suliman), who is to guide and help in uncovering the terrorists. Truly a wild bunch, they are housed in a bare basketball court, without access to something as basic as city map; only a ball to let their steam off. No instructions are given about their task, structure of the day, or when they'll be picked up. They are told their day will begin as soon as Haytham, their gracious but suspicious host, arrives. Needless to say, Fleury's team begins to tire of the regulations and the unnecessary reliance on slow, incompetent, perhaps even corrupt, local law enforcers.

During their brief stay, various tensions come to the fore, as for example, the gender-sex issue. Disregarding the strict Saudi Arabian decorum, Janet sports tight T-shirt and pants that reveal a shapely body, and she talks, drinks, and kicks ass as good-—perhaps better--as the boys. There's also the issue of the team's "inappropriate," or "foul" language and dark humor, which the hosts either innocently don't understand or deliberately misunderstand.

For his high-voltage picture, Berg has assembled a group of actors who bring intensity to their dialogue, a combo of scripted and improvised ones. Foxx, last seen in Michael Mann's disappointing actioner "Miami Vice," but still one of the coolest, most modernist actors around, is well cast as hot-tempered, action-oriented FBI agent.

The interaction between Fleury and the good Saudi Colonel (Ashraf Barhoum) provides serious and not-so-serious culture-clashes, and also arguments over tactics and strategies that gradually (and predictably) turn the second half of the feature into a variant of the buddy-buddy movie. In the end, their rapport is based on mutual respect and camaraderie with familial overtones.

Bateman, as Adam Leavitt's, the band's reluctant hero, delivers some cool, smart-ass statements, before he's captured and tortured by the bad Saudis. Indeed, his humor ends in a wrenching scene in which Adam is captured, tortured and about to be executed in a manner that recalls the highly-publicized execution of journalist Daniel Pearl (the subject of the failed film "A Mighty Heart").

Loosely based on the FBI's investigation of the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia's Dhahran, which Berg read about in the memoir "My FBI," written by former Bureau director Louis Freeh, the workable (but not great) script is penned by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who's the scribe of Redford's upcoming political drama, "Lions for Lambs."

"The Kingdom" offers a more emotional and visceral than intellectual experience, since, thematically not much in it is controversial-—or too deep in terms of the new, complex geopolitical scene. As noted, kicking off the plot with a large-scale terrorist attack that kills American contractors and their families could have taken—and has taken—place anywhere, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

Director Berg uses terrorism as a setup for a rapidly moving high-energy procedural thriller, but he knows that for his political feature to be resonant, he must go beyond TV programs and CNN reportage. Authenticity is not an issue: Political reality has become so chaotic and messy, almost every single event in the film feels real, i.e., could have actually happened. Problem is more in the American macho bravado tone, manifest in every aspect of the production.

Periodically, Berg and his writer resort to clichés in the portrayal of the good and bad Saudi Arabians. They show men wearing black mask, perhaps too soon, or men with missing fingers, which has become a signpost for suicide bomb makers.

The movie is symmetrically framed by two scenes involving children. The first depicts Fleury and his own son in a kindergarten, with the father telling a story to his captive and captivated audience (A reminder of where Bush happened to be in the early hours of 9/11?).

In contrast, the last scene depicts Fleury consoling a Saudi Arabian boy (whose identity can't be disclosed here) in the patronizing manner that John Wayne used to behave in his war pictures with Filipino boys during WWII and then Vietnamese kids in his Vietnam action flicks ("Back to Bataan," "Green Berets").

"The Kingdom" was shot in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and in our own Arizona desert, where an elaborate, thrilling, and scary car-chase sequence takes place. Visually, the movie unfolds as an exciting spectacle. Berg creates scenes of chaos that runs amok, imbuing his film with a gritty, down-and-dirty look that relies on restless, disorienting camera, both hand-held and stationary.

Steering clear off hot-button religious or political issues, "The Kingdom" instead centers on a wild bunch of pros trying to do their best to battle violence—-and in the process make the world a better place to live. As such, it encourages the audience to root for the triumph of good over evil, which explains why at the end of the screening there was enthusiastic applause. But "The Kingdom" does have a political agenda, evident in verbal and non-verbal scenes, suggesting that only Americans can do the job well, quickly, and effectively.

These chauvinistic elements about the vigor the American military institution, the American know-how, may prove problematic for some viewers. The messages are stated explicitly in several agit-prop speeches, where Fleury says: "Let us teach you how we Americans can help resolve your problems." The movie implies that Saudi Arabia, and by extension other foreign countries, of both the First World and Third World, are not strong, rational, and skillful enough to fight terrorism.

Cast

Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx)
Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper)
Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner)
Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman)
Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom)
Sgt. Haytham (Ali Suliman)
Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven)

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 150 Minutes.

A Universal release, presented in association with Relativity Media, of a Forward Pass/Stuber-Parent production.
Produced by Michael Mann, Scott Stuber. Executive producers: Mary Parent, Steven Saeta, Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producer, K.C. Hodenfield.
Directed by Peter Berg.
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan.
Camera: Mauro Fiore.
Editors: Kevin Stitt, Colby Parker Jr.
Music: Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson.
Production designer: Tom Duffield; supervising art director, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.
Art director: A. Todd Holland.
Set designer: Aaron Haye; set decorator, Ron Reiss.
Costume designer: Susan Matheson.
Makeup: Bill Myer.
Sound: Willie D. Burton.
Visual effects supervisor: John "D.J." Desjardins.
Supervising special effects coordinator: John Frazier.
Visual effects: Rhythm & Hues.
Stunt coordinator: Keith Woulard

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