The US review for The Kingdom have been fascinating: of the 114 listed on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this, 58 are generally positive ('fresh') and 56 are negative ('rotten'). A lot of the highbrow press fall into the first category (The New York Times; Village Voice; Time; Newsweek), while many other critics have been quick to condemn the movie's supposedly reactionary, gung-ho politics. "A xenophobic, overblown, revenge-driven action thriller that exports the Rambo mentality to the Middle East," moaned the tabloid, New York Post.
In a sense, both camps are right. Like so many Hollywood movies with a political subtext, The Kingdom is careful to have it both ways. It's a knee-jerk Amerika uber alles action-thriller of the type parodied in Team America: World Police. And it's a more nuanced, liberal critique of the Bush administration's response to 9/11. If many reviewers missed this aspect, it's probably because they were so eager to distance themselves from even the most notional support for the deeply unpopular war in Iraq.
Directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) in the jumpy, high-impact style pioneered by his producer, Michael Mann (The Insider; Miami Vice), The Kingdom begins with a dramatic primer on US-Saudi relations, from the discovery of oil in 1933 to the suicide attack on the World Trade Center orchestrated and executed almost entirely by Saudi nationals.
This credit sequence alone will be sufficient to ensure The Kingdom is banned in Saudi Arabia - but it's also implicitly critical of the motives of US administrations past and present.
Berg cuts from the smoking twin towers to a US compound in Riyadh, where an innocent softball game is interrupted by gunmen who shoot down men, women and children. In the aftermath of this outrage a car bomb violently rips into the rescue operation, killing dozens more. Among the dead, FBI agent Ronald Fleury's best friend.
Before you can say "Wanted: Dead or Alive", Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is agitating to investigate the crime and avenge his mate. Cooler heads retort that the political situation in Saudi Arabia is much too tense to allow Americans to interfere - so Fleury blackmails a Saudi prince to get in by the back door, with or without Washington's blessing. He brings with him a crack forensics team - Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman - but is frustrated to be billeted out of sight, out of harm's way, and out in the cold, so far as the locals' ongoing investigation is concerned.
The grudging and mutually suspicious accommodation the Americans' must make with their military minder, Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is reasonably balanced, even if other Saudi characters tend to be cast in a patronizing light. Barhom's fine performance ensures that Al Ghazi is easily the most compelling character in the movie, and to his credit, screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan doesn't make him a pushover, even if he is a Steve Austin fan. (The brother of Narc director Joe, Carnahan is actually a graduate in International Relations.)
Look closely, you may discern hints that Fleury's rogue action is a colossal blunder that only makes things worse - just as comic relief diplomat Jeremy Piven worries that it will. Apparently an earlier draft of the screenplay had a far darker and more cynical ending (some of which remains in a brief postscript). What happens now is far-fetched and then some, but the blistering shoot-anything-that-moves climax will be the highlight for many people. Impressively mounted in Abu Dhabi and Arizona (you won't spot the joins), The Kingdom works well enough as an exotic thriller - "CSI: Riyadh", as one wag observed. Its politics may be conflicted and contradictory, but given Hollywood's lousy record of stereotyping Arabs this is less reactionary than it first appears.
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