Friday, September 28, 2007

"The Kingdom" -- * * * 1/2

Peter Berg’s relentlessly entertaining and intelligent “The Kingdom” is a rare beast in the thriller genre: one that will satisfy the ‘blow shit up and kick some ass’ crowds as well as those who like their movies to actually offer themes and subtext to chew on. There’s certainly cheer-and-applause moments, but there’s also a disquieting cynicism at play, as well as an acknowledgment of the results of United States’ foreign policy.

After a brilliant opening credit sequence that rather speedily gives a brief history of the U.S.'s relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the film cuts to a softball game in Riyadh that promptly gets blown up. Believing the attack to be the work of a “bin Laden wannabe,” Abu Hamza, the C.I.A. sends an (extremely small) evidence response team to investigate and respond accordingly. The team includes Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), Janet Mays (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Levitt (Jason Bateman). The four are guided by Saudi colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who informs the group they are merely allowed to “walk through” the crime scene, and even then, only after Saudi police grants them access. Due to the failure to communicate, the Americans are forced to conduct the investigation behind the backs of the Saudi officials to actually get anything done.

For its majority, the film is a gripping “CSI”-esque crime procedural of wading through evidence and following leads, but with the consistent dread that something terrible might happen. In the film’s last act, it evolves into a full-scale action film with heroic rescue missions and bad guys getting blown away. Some may take issue with the shift into Michael Bay territory, but considering it’s a hundred times more thrilling and intense than anything Bay’s ever done, it’ll probably be most people’s favorite part of the film. But even before we get to the exciting climax, “The Kingdom” is always interesting, thoughtful, and devastating in one or two spots.

The cast does solid work, but if the movie suffers from anything, it’s Foxx’s insistence that every movie in which he appears revolves completely around him; as a result, the other characters aren’t nearly as defined. Foxx does his soft-spoken serious thing, and he's fine, but I'm still waiting for him to become even a slightly interesting actor to watch. It's a shame the other characters aren't nearly as developed, since they're a lot more entertaining and involving.

Cooper is awesome as usual with his limited material, and engages whether he’s dispensing Southern wisdom or brandishing a big fucking gun. Bateman gets the best lines in the movie (listen closely to background dialogue to hear his take on Pabst Blue Ribbon) while showing his dramatic chops as well, particularly late in the film (during a third act story turn that all the trailers spoil).

Garner basically makes weepy faces for most of the running time, but she makes up for it in the last act when she’s given the film’s most applause-inciting moment of badass violence. The one truly false note in the cast is Jeremy Piven, who shows up for a few brief moments as smartass State Department official Damon Schmidt. Piven seems so out of place every second onscreen, and he really needs to stop pulling out his Ari Gold shtick, it’s getting old fast.

While “Kingdom” doesn’t match the true greatness of Berg’s last film, “Friday Night Lights,” it is the closest he’s come to making a Michael Mann film, and that’s likely due to Mann’s involvement as a producer here. From the camera movements to the cinematography, Berg has his own style, but it’s impossible to not have vague recollections of “Miami Vice” or “Collateral.” As much of a fan as I am of the pitch-black comedy “Very Bad Things,” Berg has grown immensely as a filmmaker since then, and I eagerly await his next project, the Will Smith superhero comedy “Hancock.”

Some sensitive types have expressed concern that the film is too ‘rah-rah America’ and our characters mow down people willy-nilly as long as they’re wearing a caftan or a turban. I could kind of jibe with that criticism if Matthew Michael Carnahan’s (who also wrote the upcoming "Lions for Lambs") screenplay didn’t go out of its way to draw contrasts between “good” and “bad” Muslims, as well as close on a disturbing note acknowledging the United States’ complicity in creating more terrorists with our actions. Not to mention that the film’s most sympathetic character, by far, IS a Saudi. I’m usually the first one to cry prejudicial outrage, but I really don’t think “The Kingdom” is an offender.

Thought-provoking as it might be, there’s no denying that “The Kingdom” is a very commercial thriller, not a didactic political allegory. As cleverly written as it is and as interesting as the things it’s saying are, this is a movie that, above all, wants to entertain you. It may not be intellectual enough for the highbrow or mindless enough for the low—thinking is a requirement—but for me, it was the perfect amalgam of popcorn entertainment and complex geopolitical thriller. Basically, it’s like the love child of “Syriana” and “Live Free or Die Hard.”

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Highly doubtful


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