Following a catastrophic bombing at a Western enclave in Saudi Arabia, an FBI team flies in to help with the investigation. Once on the ground, they learn that things are done differently in The Kingdom.
Sometime actor Peter Berg has had an overlooked career as a director. From the underrated pitch-black caper Very Bad Things he graduated to the endearingly brainless action of Welcome To The Jungle, and from there to the excellent, if unseen (at least in this country) Friday Night Lights. But The Kingdom should change that. Arguably this is his first serious film, tackling a Big Important Subject (East-West relations) with an Oscar-friendly cast (Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper) and achieving a skilful blend of action and politics — even if the action is rather more astute than the message-making.
The film starts with a credit sequence rip through Saudi Arabian history, a snappy distillation of 150 years of history. And the pace doesn’t let up from there: we’re thrown straight into an attack on a Western community in Riyadh, chillingly realised. It’s a good 15 minutes before the film slows enough to introduce the principal characters, and then only as thumbnail sketches rather than portraits of our protagonists.
It’s clear that investigator Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his FBI team — bomb expert Sykes (Chris Cooper), pathologist Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and analyst Leavitt (Jason Bateman), all creating rounded characters with minimal dialogue — have a personal stake in seeing those responsible for the bombing brought to justice. As such, they flout US State Department orders and arrive in the city with an often high-handed attitude to those locals already charged with the investigation.
The fact that they are right, more often than not, and that even what appear to be personal bugbears and obsessions prove well-founded, is the film’s weakness. There’s a good basic point to be made — inexpert military types don’t make great crime-scene investigators — but too many scenes suggest that Americans just know better, even without their fancy forensic techniques.
Countering this, as best he can, is a captivating performance from Ashraf Barhoum as the Colonel charged with guiding, guarding, restraining and interpreting for these interlopers. Barhoum gradually forges something like a buddy-cop partnership with Foxx’s Fleury, with the film allowing him some room, both as an individual and as a representative of his nation and the Arab world, to put across his point of view.
But for all its award friendliness and issue-making, the fact is that any characterisation on either side is almost entirely down to the quality of the cast, because the script concentrates on fitting
both a police procedural and an explosive action film into its 110 minutes — CSI: Riyadh meets The Bourne Ultimatum. And it’s here that Berg excels himself, at times capturing the intensity and feel for urban unrest of Michael Mann (a producer on this film). It’s the set-pieces that confirm he’s a director to be reckoned with.
Berg begins the opening attack with some lingering shots — the baseball game on a sunny day, a picnic, laughing Aryan types in L. L. Bean chinos — but he rips the tranquillity apart, blowing cliché off the screen. The first shots only cause mass confusion, and the real attack begins before you, or the victims, realise what’s happening. The shock of those moments echoes through the film.
A showdown inevitably arrives but seems to come out of nowhere, derailing all the meticulous and talky evidence-gathering. The final act is an all-out battle, chips and dust flying as a Riyadh tenement building disintegrates under a hail of gunfire and explosions — think Heat with more snipers. But the most disturbing moments are close-up: a desperate prisoner lashing out at his captors; a vicious knife battle; terrified women and children in the midst of a war zone. The most chilling moment, however, comes in the final scenes. A potentially too-neat parallel between terrorist and lawman makes way for a killer last line, a moment of political honesty that will stay with you long after the film ends.
Not quite as smart as it wants to be, and a better action movie than it is a political thriller, this is still a heart-pounding drama.