The conflicts in the Middle East and the threat of Islamic extremists are two of the most pressing issues facing our country today. This fall, Hollywood responded by rolling out one of its most politically minded lineups in recent years, with several films tackling these issues with stories uncomfortably close to today’s headlines. “The Kingdom” is one of the first of these to be released and, though it might not be as politically motivated as some of the others, it still manages to make an important statement about the times in which we live in.
The story begins in Saudi Arabia, where a terrorist attack inside an American housing complex leaves more than 100 people dead. Back in the states, Washington officials determine it is best to let the local government handle the case. Angered by this decision, FBI Special Agent Robert Fleury (Jamie Foxx) arranges an unauthorized covert operation, giving him and three other agents (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) five days in Saudi Arabia to investigate further. Upon arrival, they have a hard time accomplishing anything constructive, restricted by the local authorities who don’t want their assistance. Finally, with the help of a sympathetic colonel (Ashraf Barhoum), they slowly start to unravel the identities of those responsible.
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (“The Rundown,” “Friday Night Lights,” Will Smith’s upcoming “Hancock”) has turned in another terrific effort at the helm. While more of a military thriller than a political piece, it is an involved look at a group of soldiers well out of their comfort zone, offering a glimpse into a part of the world many of us are unfamiliar with. Expanding further on the handheld tactics he employed in “Friday Night Lights,” while also trying to one-up the likes of Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”), Berg is able to ground the film in a stark sense of reality. While the style can be a bit exhausting at times, it suits the tone of the picture capably.
The cast, while all turning in solid performances, never capitalizes on the potential their talents suggest. Foxx plays a resolute and serious leading man, yet despite his efforts, he never generates a strong sense of emotion necessary to carry a story of this magnitude. The dependable Cooper is a joy to watch, playing the group’s explosives expert, but the part easily could (and should) have been expanded. As a result, he never is allowed to sink his teeth into the character, as he did earlier this year to great effect with “Breach.”
Garner, in a tough girl mode reminiscent of her “Alias” days, doesn’t distinguish herself except during the action scenes, highlighted by an impressive fight with one of the terrorists. On the other hand, fellow TV alumnus Bateman (“Arrested Development”) proves he can do more than just comedy, showing off a surprising dramatic range, and Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”) is effective as a U.S. diplomat in his limited screen time. However, the most surprising performance belongs to Barhoum (“Paradise Now”), who is more than able to hold his own against his more famous colleagues.
The script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also penned the forthcoming politically-charged “Lions For Lambs”), proves to be both a blessing and a hindrance. For the most part it is intelligently written and successful at creating an atmosphere of believability but at other times, it hinges on being too dense for its own good. Even though it never attempts the ambitiousness of something like “Syriana,” it can be a little confusing in places, especially when multiple characters are introduced in a matter of moments. The pacing also gets bogged down in the second act, slowing down considerably when the investigation gets underway. Meanwhile, the ending approaches a sense of being too convenient and neatly wrapped up, in a way violating the film’s core perception of realism it was trying to create.
While not as compelling as his masterful sports drama “Friday Night Lights,” Berg has still put together a worthwhile look into a team of a different sort faced with far graver dilemmas. Managing to be both exciting and absorbing, it nevertheless falters in its execution of story and characters, particularly in the middle section. It’s a shame because the film concludes with a scene so powerfully poignant, it casts the rest of the movie in an entirely different perspective—evidence of the high level of promise it failed to completely encompass.