Not to be confused with Lars Von Trier's chilling 1994 haunted hospital epic of the same name, "The Kingdom" is a Middle East-set thriller that leaves U.S. politics at the door, instead making the point that terrorism and violence is passed from person to person and generation to generation in what seems to be a never-ending chain. Director Peter Berg, orchestrating the same handheld camera, "you-are-there" style of his 2004 football drama, "Friday Night Lights
," doesn't offer answers to this real-world quandary because there aren't any to give. While this is a tough and admirable approach to the subject matter and preachiness is kept decidedly minimal"There are a lot of bad people in the world," a young child recites early on in one of the moments that feels cloying and false"The Kingdom" doesn't really have anything else to say. Yes, the world is screwed up in more ways than one, and Berg and first-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan make it their mission to drive this obvious and rather shallow point into the ground.
When a peaceful softball game at an American compound in Saudi Arabia is interrupted by a terrorist operation that claims the lives of upwards of a hundred people, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and trusted colleagues Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) are granted permission for a five-day trip to the foreign country. Determined to scour the crime scene and ultimately uncover the persons responsible for the heinous act, Fleury and crew find it difficult to carry out their investigation when they are met with trepidation by the territorial Saudi authorities. Their one understanding ally is Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhous), who aids in leading them ever closer and ever more dangerously toward an extremist cell planning their next attack.
With a story that could be ripped straight from today's headlines, "The Kingdom" has delusions of being loftier than it actually is. It's a timely drama that navigates the touchy relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East, but the central revelation it wants to make about the passing-on of terrorism and the ultimate meaningless of violence is something any well-read adult audience member should already know. What is left, then, is a film with a necessary streak of brutality bookending over an hour of dull exposition and meager character development.
The prologue portraying the initial bombing incident that jump-starts the story is difficult to watch and just as difficult to look away from in its unflinching realism. Likewise, the third-act transformation into a bloody and violent action picture arouses the viewer's attention and, from a technical standpoint, is thoroughly riveting. When an act of kindness between Janet and a frightened Saudi child is abruptly cut short for reasons that will go unmentioned, Janet's reaction is more telling than any line of dialogue could ever be. By comparison, the movie's final scenea nearly identical exchanging of words at opposite ends of the globeis a manipulative gut-punch that could have been so much more if it weren't delivered in such a pat and unconvincing manner.
The performances are workmanlike; there is little that's wrong with them, but there are also few chances for them to stand out. A large part of the problem is in the neglectful writing of the characters themselves. Simply put, none of them are engaging enough to care about, and all of them are too thinly drawn to get to know. Jamie Foxx (2006's "Miami Vice
") is an uncharasmatic dullard as Special Agent Ronald Fleury, and the only thing the viewer learns about his personal life is that he has a son who looks up to him. That's more than is uncovered about the rest of them. Jennifer Garner (2007's "Catch and Release
") is the resident female of the cast as Janet Mayes. Chris Cooper's (2005's "Syriana
") Grant Sykes is the no-nonsense one. And Jason Bateman (2007's "The Ex
"), as Adam Leavitt, is the sarcastic one full of wisecracks. The film's one-note treatment of these characters extends to their professions; we only know what their area of expertise is because it is tidily placed on the screen when each of them is introduced.
The premise of "The Kingdom" is intriguing, but the motion picture it has found itself in is empty and emotionally lacking. The pacing of the midsection is downright tedious as the film spins its wheels in anticipation for the climactic haze-of-bullets showdown. Without a character to intimately identify with, "The Kingdom" is a message movie without a soul or a solid cinematic framework to make the impact it intends.