If Michael Bay had directed Syriana, the result might have been a motion picture much like The Kingdom. While its subject matter is ripped from some of today’s most incendiary headlines, the film’s suspense and action provide counterpoints to the politics, creating a viewing experience that satisfies on a surprising number of levels.
Surprising indeed — in part because the movie was directed by Peter Berg, a filmmaker whose name has not exactly been synonymous with cinematic excellence. His credits include, for example, the laugh-free 1998 black comedy Very Bad Things and 2003’s The Rundown, which chronicles the adventures of a bounty hunter played by The Rock. To say Berg has taken his game to a new level would be an understatement.
The director gets a significant assist from a Grade A cast. Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper star as FBI investigators who take their lives into their hands by flying into Saudi Arabia against the wishes of the U.S. Attorney General, here played by the ever-superb Danny Huston. They want to track down the mastermind behind a horrific terrorist attack on an American compound housing oil-company personnel. Sure, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman play agents on the same team, but the two are so outclassed by the work of other members of the cast that they might as well be in another picture altogether.
The two cultures waste no time in clashing. The Americans are met at the airstrip by a sizable military presence under the leadership of — well, it’s not always clear, and that’s the point. At different times, different Saudi officers assert authority over apparently different but commingled armed factions. Ashraf (Paradise Now) Barhom turns in a finely calibrated performance as the colonel responsible for disarming the foreign infidels, limiting their access to the bombing site, and making sure they return home unscathed in five days so as not to upset the precarious apple cart of international relations.
Little by little, though, rules relax, and a handful of people on both sides establish a level of trust. The viewer is rarely sure which Saudis want the culprits caught and which would just as soon go Daniel Pearl on the Americans. For that matter, neither are the Americans. Consequently, the tension and sense of unspeakable danger lurking around the next crowded corner are relentless and intense.
On the one hand, The Kingdom consists of a murky, politically charged procedural through which beams of common humanity periodically burst. Foxx and Cooper do nicely understated work as strangers searching for any friendly face in a strange land. The few times they encounter one, the movie tempts one to say to oneself that maybe there’s hope for peaceful, respectful coexistence between these two worlds after all.
On the other, the film is brutally unsentimental in a way Hollywood movies almost never are. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that finding the man who planned the attack barely matters in a society that has institutionalized hatred of the West. As we’ve learned throughout the Middle East, capturing or killing one terrorist leader results in little more than his replacement by another, and the recruitment of any number of new jihadists to his cause. This isn’t just a monster. It’s a monster that regenerates.
That’s a pretty heavy subtext for an action film — but Berg and company make it work. The first in a series of Middle East-themed movies scheduled for release this fall, The Kingdom never rises to the level of award-caliber cinema. At the same time, its creators handily solve the mystery of how to make a popcorn movie that offers serious food for thought.