Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Peter Berg's THE KINGDOM ****

Peter Berg's thrilling new action picture THE KINGDOM is a ballsy, big-budget Hollywood production that brings a surprising level of smarts to its relatively predictable and straight forward story. Action thrillers this topical are a rarity in today's action movie landscape; post 9/11, there haven't been many films to portray Arabs in a negative light, I'd assume out of a fear of backlash and condemnation. Whatever. I have to be honest, I am glad someone made a movie like THE KINGDOM. The truth of the matter is that while there are terrorists of all nationalities, Arab terrorists are extremely prevalent in today's society. And Hollywood's reluctance to actually portray terrorism in a serious way in major action movies has been noticeable. Now, whether or not your idea of entertainment is a film that centers on a terrorist bombing of American civilians and our government's response to such atrocities--that's a different story. Regardless, THE KINGDOM is a tightly focused procedural with solid acting, smart plotting, and an amazing visual style.

I should first mention the opening credits sequence, which is a real wowser. During the first 5 minutes, the audience is presented with a very stylish animated timeline of our nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia, all stemming from the importance of oil. We're then plunged right into the action. A terrorist cell coordinates a multi-stage attack on an American housing complex in Saudi Arabia which leaves 100 people dead, many of whom are women and children. The movie doesn't shy away from graphic violence; rarely do you see a big-budget Hollywood action film that will actually show you on-screen deaths of women and children like THE KINGDOM does. Those moments, while shocking, are important. Without them, the filmmakers would be diluting the situation of its impact and realism. Innocent people die when terrorists strike, yet for the most part, Hollywood enjoys its killings bloodless and faceless. Not here. The FBI learns that a few agents were also killed in the attacks. They want to send a team of investigators over to Saudi Arabia to track down the people responsible but are blocked by government officials who don't want any extra strain on the all-important US-Saudi relations. Jamie Foxx, playing a senior FBI agent named Ronald Fleury, is able to blackmail the Saudi embassy (it's a clever bit of scripting though probably implausible) into allowing him and his team onto Saudi soil to try and apprehend the killers. Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman make up his team. They rendezvous with a sympathetic Saudi policeman named Faris, played by the excellent Ashraf Barhom, who was incredible in last year's PARADISE NOW. Faris is a family man and an honest cop, who is just as angry that Arab terrorists have lashed out in his country as the Americans are. He's put in charge with essentially babysitting Fleury and his team by the Saudi prince, telling them what they can and can't do, what they can and can't touch, etc.

The middle section of the movie sort of plays like a television procedural, something you'd see on CSI or LAW & ORDER. But it's deeper than that. While Fleury and his team find clues to the killings, they learn a lot about Saudi customs, and the relationship that develops between Fleury and Faris is interesting and complex. And never phony. These two men are fighting the same fight, and while their backgrounds are different, they are able to agree on what is right and what is wrong, all the while learning more about each other in the process. The character shadings that Faris has are important and distinct, and this is where THE KINGDOM elevates itself over most other action films in the genre. As much as it's concerned with blowing stuff up real good (and that it does), Berg, and the screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, showcase the frustrations that would accompany an investigation like this. Brining an almost SYRIANA-type vibe to the proceedings, the filmmakers keep the storytelling efficient and coherent, but never make it boring. Foxx is in fine form as the commanding officer in charge, and Cooper, as always, gives a sturdy supporting performance. Garner is the best she's been on the big screen here, channeling her role from ALIAS in some extremely physical sequences. And Bateman is awesome; he gets all the script's wisecracks and delivers them in a funny, unforced manner. He also gets a chance to flex his action muscles.

But THE KINGDOM is really Peter Berg's coming out as a big-time action director. The last third of the film, an extended action sequence, is a tour de force of staging and logistics. Beginning with a high speed car chase and highway ambush that evolves into a BLACK HAWK DOWN-style, urban-combat sequence, Berg never lets the viewer out of his grasp. RPG's fly all over the place; automatic gun-fire explodes from every direction. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who has worked for action vets like Michael Bay (THE ISLAND) and Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY), covers the action inventively and believably. Employing a similar shooting and editing style to that of what Paul Greengrass has been cultivating with his work on the BOURNE franchise and UNITED 93, the camera is always moving and searching, which heightens every sequence to maximum potential. You haven't seen an SUV flip over like the way you do here. The quite bloody and intimate machine gun violence, reminiscent of the close-quarter shoot-outs in MUNICH, are pulse-pounding and hard to watch at times. And one sequence, with Garner engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a bad guy, is extremely intense and unrelenting in its visceral impact. Berg has a feeling for authenticity that's reminiscent of the works of Michael Mann, who is a producer on the film. The here-and-now quality of the locations and sets are incredible, which is even more amazing as much of the film was shot in Arizona. The last 30 minutes of the movie are truly electrifying; Berg can now be added to the top ranks of action directors currently working in Hollywood.

But the real coup of the movie is the final moments. THE KINGDOM ends on a note of surprising darkness and honest reflection; without spoiling anything, you're reminded that the cycle of violence in our current climate is something that will never end and can't be easily fixed. It's a small moment but it adds weight to everything that has come before it. Dismissed by some critics as a RAMBO retread (which it isn't at all) or as simply CSI: Riyadh (which also, it isn't), THE KINGDOM is one of the best action films of the year, and to be honest, one of the most flat-out entertaining. I think that some audiences will find it too close to home, and I can certainly respect that. There is great debate right now over whether or not the American movie-going public wants to see movies that take place in the Middle East. And while more of a straight ahead thriller than a "message movie," THE KINGDOM will still be a tough sell for some people. Me--I want my action pictures to smell of authenticity and to involve the viewer in a tangible and realistic sequence of events. The more topical the better. THE KINGDOM, like this summer's THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, is a top-notch action film that is equal parts brain and brawn.

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