Intense. That would be the only way to describe the latest film from Universal Studios and director Peter Berg, ‘The Kingdom’. From pretty much the very first frame to when the final credits roll this is a movie that is filled with an uneasy tension throughout, barely giving the viewer any sense that at anytime you can sit back in your chair and relax with the knowledge that nothing horrific is on the verge happening.
After a very clever stylized opening animation sequence giving us a brief history of the Middle East and the United States relationship with Saudi Arabia, we see a group of westerners playing softball within the walls of their heavily protected living quarters, which is also on the grounds of the home of a Saudi prince. Terror strikes resulting in the deaths of hundreds including a pair of FBI agents working that detail and causing the immediate motivation of a DC based FBI investigative team led by one very angry Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx). Problems arise because the presence of Americans on the Saudi soil is a primary cause of this terrorist action in the first place and as such, despite the expertise of the team in matters such as these, a more pronounced American presence is strictly prohibited. If nothing else Agent Fleury is quite the resourceful one and does manage to finagle his team five days on Saudi soil to investigate this crime and at least attempt to bring the terrorist behind this travesty to justice.
Along with Fleury are agents Sykes (Chris Cooper), Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Leavitt (Jason Batemen) who are fairly shocked at the carnage before them when they touch ground, but are met with nothing but resistance and road blocks from the Saudi’s in their efforts to investigate. Charged with babysitting the Americans is palace guard
Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Borhom) who is sympathetic to the American needs but is loyal to the orders from his superiors. Eventually though the reigns are loosened and Fleury and his team, with the valuable assistance of Colonel Al Ghazi, are in full blown CSI mode breaking down the little bits and pieces from the blast site hoping to find a bead on the terrorist behind this carnage, and this is pretty much where all hell breaks loose with the film grabbing you by the throat and mercifully letting it go only when the final credits appear.
What Director Peter Berg has managed to do with ‘The Kingdom’, besides cleverly slipping himself into the movie with a carefully placed cameo, is successfully create that rare beast that dares calls itself the ‘Thinking Man’s Action Movie’. The political intrigue which drives the narrative is not presented as a careless afterthought as screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan uses this as the crux of his story and one that has impact on the film throughout. Anyone unfamiliar with the Middle East politics will immediately be sucked into the subtleties of the culture and expectations of Saudi Arabia and appreciate the time that was taken to make sure the viewer understands completely the ramifications of the American presence in the Middle East. As I stated earlier there is a constant tension that permeates the film, even in the earlier scenes where there was very little outright action. One of the reasons is Bergs handheld camera style does give the film a steady feeling of uneasiness and the director often shoots his actors in very close proximity which doesn’t give the viewer a chance to see beyond them and as such if anything is about to occur, you are in the characters place and wouldn’t see it coming anyway.
Jamie Foxx continues his string of fine performances as the no-nonsense driven leader of the his team of forensic agents with just the right balance of compassion and grit, and his supporting cast of Cooper, Garner and Bateman all do fine work, though I wasn’t quite sure what purpose Bateman’s character was in service to the team. Ashraf Borhom though stood out in an exemplary performance as the haggard Saudi Colonel, loyal to his men, loyal to his country and his prince, yet equally as driven as Foxx’s Fleury in bringing these terrorist to justice. And as many have said, the last twenty minutes or so is bravura action filmmaking at it’s most violent and most thrilling.
It helps ‘The Kingdom’ that I am fairly ignorant of Middle Eastern politics and forensic science so any flaws or inconsistencies in the presentation of these things, I’m not equipped to catch, and thus am more than willing to buy what I see as fact. Yay ignorance! I had a thoroughly fine time at the movies watching this fast paced, taut, tightly constructed thriller. Peter Berg, coming off his fine directorial performance in ‘Friday Night Lights’ is showing himself to be a director that one had better take notice of in his films to come.