The Reeler


September 28, 2007

The Kingdom

Berg's kill 'em all action flick attempts to elevate itself with clumsy, rock 'n roll politics

Discussing The Kingdom on a morning show earlier this week, star Jamie Foxx ironically summed up the most offensive thing about the film while trying to explain why the Saudis it vilifies should not take offense. Above all else, he explained, it’s an entertainment; nothing anyone should actually care about, in other words.

Director Peter Berg’s latest is a kill-'em-all action flick that attempts to elevate itself with clumsy, rock ‘n roll politics, dropping actual names and controversies like catchphrases, pumping itself full of specificity -- in love with fancy job titles slapped under characters on screen, bomb-making, beheading, Muslim law, locations, references and protocols, authenticity -- only to pee away any chance of relevance and indeed border on risible irresponsibility with its misuse of such volatile political currency.

Where a film like Three Kings used the backdrop of the Gulf War to tell a harrowing story of war, greed, ignorance and consequence -- provocative but never careless with its hot-button details -- The Kingdom wants it both ways: to be both topical and free from factual or referential responsibility. Big on detail but only superficially, it puts an oily sheen of urgency on what amounts to generic, bloodthirsty pap. Berg, whose last film was Friday Night Lights (2004) and before that The Rundown (2003), starring The Rock, is an adequate action director but in egregiously over his head here, with a smarmy, shit-talking script from Matthew Michael Carnahan.

The Kingdom opens with a blocky, title-addled recap of recent Saudi Arabian history, ending with the reminder that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. Are you pissed yet? Lock-and-load pissed? If not, I imagine you’re meant to be after a massacre takes place on a U.S. compound for the employees and families of an American oil contractor -- during a softball game, no less. (An actual Riyahd compound suicide bombing occurred in 2003, killing 35, including nine Americans; the softball game -- and everything else -- are Berg’s plucky invention.) Saudi rebels, apparently at the bidding of an “Osama wannabe” named Abu Hamza, are responsible, and the Saudi police, at odds with the Saudi National Guard, launch a remedial investigation.

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When another bomb goes off killing an FBI agent on the scene, however, things get personal. Back at home, fellow agents Ronald Fleury (Foxx), Grant (Chris Cooper), Janet (Jennifer Garner) and Adam (Jason Bateman) decide to head to Riyahd, more or less on their own recognizance, to investigate the bombing. Foxx is again in full booyah, wearing his Jarhead aviators, high and tight up top; Garner is surprisingly less comfortable in the role, making her sour lemons face of distress when in doubt, and for an FBI agent who is apparently trained in combat, logistics and forensics, she’s in doubt a lot. Cooper manages to retain his dignity as the seen-it-all sage; Bateman seems to hang around to do his Nervous Nancy routine, and while it still works for me, as a character -- not just an agent -- he almost flaunts his uselessness.

The designated good German -- I’m sorry, Saudi -- is a police colonel played by Ashraf Barhom, who eventually softens to the rough charms of the Americans, as does the Saudi Prince, apparently convinced to give the shady foursome investigative jurisdiction by Foxx’s heartfelt, bridge-building plea: “We’re not perfect, but we’re good at this (catching the bad guys).” Jeremy Piven shows up as a Middle East fixer/diplomat, answering to the heavies back at home for the safety of the agents, and has some fun with his small, sweaty role.

A curious thing happens when the shit finally hits the fan, the veil, the keffiyeh, what have you: People cheer. It’s not so strange in and of itself -- people generally cheer when the bad guy gets it -- but here the dusky terrorists are not part of some dusky terrorist underworld, a crudely functional “other” with a long bad guy tradition in pre-9/11 movies like True Lies, Patriot Games and Rules of Engagement. We all speak (broken) Terrorist now, and so when The Kingdom’s insane guerrilla streetfight breaks out, cries of “Yeeeah! Fuck the Taliban!” rose up from the audience, despite the utter absence of the Taliban from the film (but I mean, fuck the Taliban, totally). I was beginning to think I was one RPG-hit away from the phrase the jaded American soldiers in the upcoming Redacted were so fond of, “sand niggers,” and wondered about the dangers of fueling deeply ingrained, cinematic rah-rah instincts with a situation so tenuous and so little understood.

I didn’t think it was possible to subject the phrase “kill 'em all” (another gem used pivotally in Redacted) to mishandling: it has no handles to speak of, that I can see, though it’s a guiltless, surefire rouser when uttered against a horde of aliens or, say, killer robots. And yet, in the final moments of The Kingdom, Berg barfs up a little note of callback closure so repugnant, so false and so ugly in its naked, misguided cry for oh-so-ambivalent profundity, that I literally withered in my seat. The crowd went nuts.

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