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Saudi shoot-'em-up

'The Kingdom' has no deep meaning. It just gives mayhem a stage.

September 28, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"The Kingdom" has some power but not enough sense. A ripped-from-today's-headlines thriller starring Jamie Foxx, it wants us to feel as if we're watching something relevant when what's really going on is a slick excuse for efficient mayhem that's not half as smart as it would like to be.

Set in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and involving American good guys going toe to toe with heartless followers of the dreaded Abu Hamsa, terrorist extraordinaire, "The Kingdom" sounds like a plausible action film, and, as directed by Peter Berg, it almost literally opens with a bang.

That would be the sound of huge bombs going off in the American housing compound in Riyadh, killing and wounding hundreds who had gathered to watch a softball game. A softball game, for heaven's sake. Is nothing sacred to these people?

Back in Washington, Special Agent Ronald Fleury of the FBI (Foxx) is determined to put together one of those crack evidence response teams (members gamely played by Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) that exists almost exclusively in Hollywood's dreams and "put boots on Saudi soil" as soon as possible to discover who is responsible.

This will not be easy: The Saudis don't look kindly on this type of American presence, and the Washington bureaucracy is against it as well. But Fleury knows whose arms to twist and soon gets Saudi permission for a secret five-day trip.

Once in country, the Americans find themselves being relentlessly baby-sat, hampered from doing the kind of investigating they do best by a Saudi minder, Col. Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who so limits their access to evidence that they're forced to spend their time reading books like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Koran."

It may sound like not that much happens in these middle stages of "The Kingdom," and that would be the truth. But director Berg ("Friday Night Lights"), cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editors Kevin Stitt and Colby Parker Jr. keep even the pro forma moments moving with jumpy visuals and rapid cutting.

Not surprisingly, the Americans' presence comes to the attention of the same unapologetic evildoers who set off those softball bombs, and soon the investigators become targets themselves. The nerve of some people.

There is no getting around the action movie effectiveness of "The Kingdom's" final half-hour or so, when good and bad fight to the death in the most vivid, pulse-pounding way. Given how well Berg and his team orchestrate the boring parts of the film, it's a given that they will do well with the mayhem, and they do.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Several aspects of "The Kingdom" (script credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan) are off-putting and troublesome in ways that detract from the film's overall effectiveness.

For one thing, if noticeable time or effort was spent on character development and interplay, it is not evident in the final product. The film's dialogue is almost universally stiff and clunky, even by action film standards, so much so that even an actor as exceptional as Cooper can't make it palatable.

Also off-putting is the film's determination to blatantly play on our emotions, to shamelessly exaggerate the good and evil in all of its plot elements. "The Kingdom" is in many ways a film that doesn't want us to think, doesn't trust us to feel on our own and is more than willing to strip everything of nuance as if it were a disease.

This is especially true with the film's Saudi characters. Yes, no surprise here, a rapport does develop between Foxx's Fleury and the right-thinking Saudi colonel, and yes, pains are taken to give the colonel a loving and briefly visible family.

But all this feels like window dressing, a manufactured fallback position the film knows it must have because its heart is in providing the most vivid, across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs it can manage. Although it would be foolish to deny the effect of those closing action scenes, the film's thematic similarity to those jingoistic World War II-era "Yellow Peril" films makes it hard not to feel your humanity being diminished as you watch all those evildoers getting blown away.


"The Kingdom." MPAA rating: R for sexual content and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.

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