When I first heard about "The Kingdom" what seems like two or three years ago, I really had no desire to see it. It just looked like a thoroughly routine thriller which would dumb down the politics and amp up the carnage.
Well, I was kind of right, but in the hands of Peter Berg this still turned out to be a tremendously entertaining movie.
The setup: Early on, Saudi terrorists (we think) detonate two bombs at a housing establishment for American oil workers in Saudi Arabia, killing more than 100 people. After overcoming some resistance, the FBI is able to send in an elite team led by agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) to find the culprit.
The opening sequence with the bombing is as hard as to watch as it is expertly constructed. The tension rises steadily between the first and second bombs, and Kyle Chandler of Berg's TV creation "Friday Night Lights" plays a key role you won't hear anymore about from me.
It's in the FBI response team, however, that Berg and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan really shine. On paper, the four agents are standard Hollywood composites, the badass maverick (Foxx), the wizened veteran (Chris Cooper), the agent with a personal stake in the investigation (Jennifer Garner) and the young, wise-cracking addition (Jason Bateman.) It's how Carnahan and Berg build on these familiar characters, however, that gives "The Kingdom" most of its strength.
And special mention here should go to Ashraf Barhoum, the Saudi police officer who at first blocks them at every turn but (of course) eventually rallies to their side. His banter with his American cohorts, particularly on the prevalence of cursing in American daily discourse, is natural and entertaining, and since it's that season, I think you'll be hearing Mr. Barhoum's name again on Oscar night.
But, of course, this is eventually an action movie, and that's where it starts to fall apart a little bit. With Foxx taking the lead in his least annoying role since "Ray," they steadily, and more than a bit too easily, gather clues and make their case. It does move along at a quick clip toward the shootout(s) you know have to be coming.
And when it finally unleashes the chaos, with one of the agents kidnapped (you won't hear which one from me) and his friends in pursuit, it's a blur of action that doesn't let up for a good 20 minutes. Though Berg never quite resorts to the constant-camera-movement antics of Paul Greengrass, it is an intense finale that delivers what the premise promises.
And a word, if I could, about the politics. A.O. Scott, in an otherwise glowing review of this flick, called it "Syriana for dummies." I'm not really sure where to start with that one. First of all, I may indeed be dumb, because I flat out hated "Syriana." Way too many stories with just about no character development, and several messages just crammed down your throat until you choke.
Now, I'll concede that Mr. Berg does dumb it down a bit, but what was Mr. Scott expecting from a thriller like this? I actually found the opening credits, with a three-minute-or-so summary of American-Saudi relations to this point, to be an effective enough way to draw people into the action.
And Berg's point, when he finally gets around to making it at the very end, is much the same as Steven Spielberg's with "Munich": In our current global battle against terrorism and other evils, we're often in a zero-sum game. For my money, though, he makes that point with a much more entertaining flick than Spielberg's, and I can't ask for much more than that.
P.S.: I've seen the season two premiere of "Friday Night Lights," and can report that though the season predictably starts on a down note, it's still expertly written and very entertaining. The strains of coach Taylor (Chandler) being away at SMU over the summer grow worse as his wife (the great Connie Britton) gives birth to a baby girl, and Tyra and Landry's relationship starts to develop in a most interesting way. You know you should be watching this one, people, so please don't make me beg.