The Kingdom, Peter Berg's action thriller about FBI agents pursuing terrorists in Saudi Arabia, is likely to split the audience into three camps. Viewers who prefer nuance and realistic outcomes when a film riffs on geo-politics should stay away. Those who dig simplistic right-wrong tales splashed with easy irony to feel "serious" should be satisfied, while those who like to see heavily armed Americans blow the shit out of some backasswards country filled with haters should get extra popcorn for the dull stretches.
Count me in the first group, if only because when a movie waves the flag of current events, it better deliver more than Rambo 2007. The Kingdom, penned by Matthew Carnahan, obviously wants to generate debate about our role in the turmoil of the Middle East, but it's hard to parse out any thoughtful questions from Berg's smorgasbord of action-movie clichés.
At an American bubble ... er ... compound in Riyadh, an oil-company picnic is bombed (an incident inspired by an actual 2003 event). But when a FBI agent is among the casualties, an A-team fly out immediately from Washington, D.C. -- against orders! -- to catch the bad guys. That's movie hokum, right down to the perfectly seasoned mix of cardboard characters: square-jawed leader (Jamie Foxx), brainy woman (Jennifer Garner), young wiseacre (Jason Bateman) and a good ol' boy whistling Johnny Paycheck tunes (Chris Cooper).
Once on the ground in "The Kingdom," there's a slim hope that the story will forefront the awkward cooperation between the Americans and their conflicted Saudi counterpart (Ashraf Barhom, of Paradise Now). There is, after all, sturdy dramatic potential in the clash of motives, investigative styles and the official representatives of two countries that share an uneasy alliance based mutual selective myopia.
But soon the demanding Americans -- whose cockiness and cultural ignorance seems played for laughs -- gain control of the investigation, and the action-film tropes line up again: car chase, explosion, another car chase. It all culminates in a ballistic orgy of justice in a dense residential neighborhood. The close-ups and hurtling camera render mostly confusion, even as familiar beats are hit: Cars blow up, hallways are charged, doors are busted in. Our heroes neatly sidestep zooming RPGS while "terrorists" are mowed down by the dozens.
The closing sequence might as well have been a video game, but for its contrived coda, a "secret" provocative message. I groaned out loud, while noticing that some previously cheering viewers at the screening didn't seem to get it. I can't blame them for being confused. The Kingdom shakes a few headlines in our face, then delivers a vicarious romp -- the easy victory we've been denied in our real-life Mid-East adventures -- before ameliorating its jingoism with a hastily appended caution. Stay real or kick ass, but don't split the difference.
Starts Fri., Sept. 28.