The Kingdom

Though it’s shot in a very dry, almost documentary-style fashion, we shouldn’t assume that The Kingdom is realistic. It is, after all, a film where our heroes’ bullets can penetrate walls but a thin car door can easily shield the good guys. Inevitably, this film loosely inspired by real events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was criticised by its pat view of Middle Eastern current affairs, which is a silly view given that most people don’t understand the politics of their own country, let alone anybody else’s.

The film is directed by Peter Berg and stars Jamie Foxx. If it had been directed by (producer) Michael Mann and starred Denzel Washington, it would have been a very fine film indeed, but instead it’s a capable B-list movie.

The opening sequence is highly innovative, giving a brief montage to bring us up-to-speed on enough Saudi history cliff notes to be able to enjoy the movie. It neatly ties in 9/11 to the regional power struggle, explaining that many of those involved in the atrocities were from Saudi Arabia, the United States’ ally. Then, within a few confusing minutes, the scene is set as a series of terrorist attacks in Riyadh kill both Saudis and Americans, including an FBI agent. A team of FBI investigators (Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper) is dispatched to the bomb site to aid the local police force.

After initial friction with General Al Abdulmalik (Mahmoud Said), the team are frustrated to find they are only allowed to observe the investigation. Luckily, the Saudi Prince puts the sympathetic and competent Colonel Faris al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) in charge, who allows the investigators to perform proper forensic tests. Credit to the film and actors here for making the US team just jerkish enough to be believable, inviting sympathy for the exasperated locals. Barhom is wonderful here, wearily trying to discourage Foxx’s constant expletives while helping the Americans to navigate the minefield of unfamiliar etiquette.

One priceless exchange:
Foxx: “Oh yeah, this is my s***.”
Barhom: “You need bathroom?”

The direction could be compared to that of the excellent District 9, in that naturalistic way, though it settles into a more formulaic Hollywood action movie style as it progresses. The shootouts and car chases are tense and skillful, though there are many times when I forget I’m watching a film and think I’m playing Call of Duty. The most memorable moment is a fight scene involving Jennifer Garner that is almost shockingly brutal, although some silent, very still scenes are likely to linger in the mind.

Overall, The Kingdom is a good film but not a great one. Apparently it did very well on DVD, which is fitting. It’s competent without being special; entertaining without being wonderful. Though the whole cast do the job ably enough, I’m looking forward to seeing more from Ashraf Barhom, and director Peter Berg is worth keeping an eye on, too.

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