"The Kingdom" opens with what has become a familiar sight in the movies, a horrendous terrorist attack – this time on American contractors and their families in Saudi Arabia. Bucking an official State Department ban, a crack team of FBI operatives fly to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to decimate the perpetrators and their bin Laden-like leader.
The renegade FBI quartet, which has only five days to complete their handiwork, is a diverse cross-section of high-alert types. Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is the head commando with a short fuse; Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) is a folksy explosives expert who likes to root around in the mud for clues; intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) is the wisecracker who reads "The Idiots Guide to the Koran" and is identifiably Jewish; forensic examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) is as steely as Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2."
Directed by Peter Berg from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the movie makes an initial stab at dealing with intercultural complexities. Fleury bonds with a Saudi colonel, Faris al Ghazi (wonderfully played by Ashraf Barhom from "Paradise Now") who wants to capture the killers every bit as much as the Americans. But by the end, we might as well be watching "Gunfight at Riyadh Corral."
Or "CSI: Riyadh." When Jennifer Garner extracts bullet fragments from a corpse or when Berg's handheld camera bobbles about in the battle scenes in that woozy way that is meant to be hyperrealistic, we might as well be watching a Jerry Bruckheimer TV spectacular. The coproducer of "The Kingdom," in fact, is Michael Mann, whose film "Miami Vice" this sometimes resembles in its free-floating mayhem and gritty stylishness – and ultimate hollowness.
The filmmakers's attempts to balance out the gung-ho shoot-'em-ups with an overlay of "fairness" are rudimentary. As one example, in a prologue to the action we see Fleury with his adoring son, and later on we see Faris with his adoring sons. What does this tell us except that Americans and Arabs are both capable of loving their children? In any case, no matter how hard Berg tries to humanize the Arabs, they are essentially moving targets here.
And there is a moment at the end, in which both Americans and jihadists are depicted as lusting for the blood of their enemy, that is deeply hypocritical. The movie works us into a frenzy of righteous revenge, it makes us cheer each kill by the FBI warriors, and then it tells us that this violence only breeds more violence.
As the appearance of this movie demonstrates yet again, the Hollywoodization of global-terror politics is something we moviegoers are just going to have get used to. But that doesn't mean that this uneasy mixture of polemics and kapowie is getting easier to stomach. The real life events that "inspire" films such as "The Kingdom," or the superior "A Mighty Heart," are too raw to be fitted – comfortably or otherwise – into a conventional violent thriller format. The blam-blam histrionics devalue the verity.
So is the only solution to make political movies that mimic "Frontline"? Even there you've got a problem since TV news is Hollywoodized too. No, the answer, I think, is to make political action thrillers in which the politics and not the action is the pretext for the film.
"The Kingdom," for all its immediacy, is "Rambo" all over again, except "Rambo" was made after the Vietnam War ended. In "The Kingdom," Garner's Janet Mayes lets it be known that her team is fighting the second wave of Al Qaeda because the first wave lost. We are told, in reference to the renegade FBI mission, that "America is not perfect" but "we are good at this." "The Kingdom" is ostensibly set in Saudi Arabia but it's really a fantasy action game about winning the war in Iraq. Grade: B–
Rated R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and for language.