In “The Kingdom,” an elite FBI unit led by Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is dispatched to investigate a devastating terrorist attack on American oil workers living in a compound in Saudi Arabia. To find the killers, the investigators must learn to work with conservative Muslim locals who oppose the American presence in their Holy Lands.
Given the provocative premise and locale, I wondered going in whether to expect another entry in the recent spate of thoughtful meditations on terrorism (“Munich,” “Syriana,” etc.). Instead, director Berg and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan serve up a paint by the numbers criminal procedure that, except for its opening and closing action set pieces, feels as if it was produced for episodic TV.
Yes, all the “CSI: Riyadh” jokes youâ€™ve heard about the film are apt. Beautiful, earnest detectives poke and prod at corpses, frown at pieces of evidence, and all too easily figure out whodunit. All and all, the cast does fine with what they have. Jason Bateman gives his FBI investigator an ascerbic wit that gives the film some much needed comic relief (In the name of full disclosure, I should say that any time a former cast member of either “Arrested Development” or “Freaks and Geeks” gets work, I cheer). The biggest standout is Chris Cooper who plays the unitâ€™s bomb expert as a cackling, deep south auto mechanic whoâ€™s gone a little crazy from the heat.
I was doubly disappointed by the film after its fascinating opening montage promised more than the film could deliver. In it, stock footage and eye-popping graphics cut together at break-neck speed lay out the history of Saudi Arabia, from its independence from colonial powers to its discovery of oil to its governmentâ€™s strained relationship with the extremist Muslim Wahabi sect which dominates the country. I honestly learned something and hoped the rest of the film would dig just as deep.
However, as the film progresses, culture clash takes a back seat to the uninspired investigation plot. Col. Faris Al Ghazi (played with a winsome charm by Ashrof Barhom), the Saudi police officer charged with guiding the unit through its investigation, sheds some light on his country and his religion, but heâ€™s too easily won over by the unitâ€™s can-do spirit and Hollywood smiles. Had there been more conflict between Al Ghazi and the unit, more light could have been shed on their nationsâ€™ varied perspectives.
The ending is the most disappointing aspect of the film. When the terrorists kidnap a member of the unit with the intention of videotaping his beheading, the unit, with military automatics a-blazing, shoots up an entire city block to get him back.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the film, please do not read the following italicized paragraph. Miraculously, the unit saves their comrade from being beheaded and, in the process, stumbles across and kills the Osama Bin-Laden stand-in responsible for the attacks, all without killing a single innocent Arab or losing a single (white) man.
Instead of examining the complexities of Americaâ€™s role in the Middle East, the filmâ€™s simplistic tone reminds me of “The Green Berets,” John Wayneâ€™s ill advised attempt to inject a World War II chest-thumping bravado into the dark morass that was the Vietnam War. Or “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” in which Sly Stallone returns to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980â€™s in order to, at long last, win that war. The ending of “The Kingdom” is a cynical exercise in wish fulfillment, and while not exactly offensive, it renders the film utterly irrelevant.