Saturday 30 June 2018

Movie Review: The Kingdom (2007)

An anti-terrorism investigative thriller, The Kingdom is inspired by real events and features solid action scenes, but treats its subject matter with condescending simplicity.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a coordinated terrorist attack featuring shooters, a suicide bomber and a large car bomb hits an American compound and causes massive casualties. Suspicions immediately fall on the cell commanded by Abu Hamza, an Al-Qaeda follower. The Saudi government initially refuses to grant entry to foreign investigators, but in Washington DC, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) pulls the necessary levers to permit his team a brief visit.

Fleury arrives in Riyadh along with agents Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Leavitt (Jason Bateman) and Sykes (Chris Cooper). They are greeted by Saudi State Police Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Bahrom) and Sergeant Haytham (Ali Suliman), who had attempted to thwart the attack. Al-Ghazi is initially unhelpful and keeps the FBI team on a short leash. But gradually Fleury builds up a level of trust, and the investigators start to make progress collecting evidence and identifying the terrorists.

Inspired by the 1996 and 2003 Khobar and Riyadh bombings, The Kingdom tackles the scourge of extremist Islamic terrorism targeting American interests. Directed by Peter Berg and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the film is slick, fast-paced and vivid. But for a story that purports to peel away the complexities of Saudi Arabia's social history and its unintended role in incubating and exporting extremism, the narrative quickly defaults to jingoistic American cheerleading.

Compared to much more thoughtful post-September 11, 2001 films like Rendition and SyrianaThe Kingdom is lightweight. The FBI team can do no wrong, except for Al-Ghazi the local Saudis are incompetent obstructionists, and all it takes to track down a terrorist mastermind is a bit of on-site investigative work and a handful of agents storming a heavily-fortified neighbourhood.

But when it comes to delivering action scenes, Berg is in his element. The opening terrorist attack, a carnage-on-the-highway showdown and the final climactic battle are well-handled, and despite some jerky camera movement and obsessive editing, the chaotic grit of close quarters urban warfare jumps off the screen.

The investigative elements are orderly but settle in below television CSI-levels of linear simplicity. Sykes is the only one to think of diving into the blast hole to retrieve the identifying marks of the terrorists' car. Mayes extracts marble shrapnel fragments from victims' bodies, and these end-up being key clues to identifying the bombers. And Fleury looks up and immediately spots the building where the bad guys congregated to film the attack.

The cast is strong, but features some odd choices. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are not the first names to jump out as candidates for the roles of hardened FBI agents. Foxx and Cooper are more in their element, but overall Carnahan's script seems to go out of its way to highlight the boorish and insensitive behaviours that tend to give Americans abroad a bad name. Jeremy Piven is the harried on-the-ground State Department official, and back in Washington DC Richard Jenkins and Danny Huston are the suits embroiled in battles of careerism.

The Kingdom is a modestly useful addition to the influx of post-9/11 films exploring the complexities of the Middle East, but is more interested in brawn than brains.

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