Director Peter Berg’s new movie asks a thought-provoking question: What is the FBI doing investigating terrorist attacks half a world away, in Saudi Arabia? When Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his Bureau team disembark from their plane in Riyadh, one of the group is discovered to have an Israeli stamp in his passport — a well-known guarantee of a frosty reception in any seriously anti-Zionist state. Another agent, a woman named Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), has arrived wearing pants and a T-shirt — in a country where women’s bodies are famously kept hidden away in bag-like head-to-toe abayas. On top of such hapless behavior, not one of these four investigators appears to speak a word of Arabic. Do these people have a clue? And are they likely to find any?
These would be pressing questions if “The Kingdom” were anything much more than a big-budget action movie. But despite its ripped-from-today’s-headlines pretensions, it’s not, really. Berg says the film was inspired by two actual terrorist incidents — the Iran-backed 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, in which 19 U.S. airmen were killed and hundreds of others were injured, and the 2003 Riyadh housing-compound assaults (an al Qaeda operation) in which nine Americans lost their lives. What the movie is really about, though, is the usual action-flick mix of gunfire, explosions and hot pursuits. There’s even a car chase. Judged by the usual action-flick standards, the picture’s not bad. But an action flick is what it is — and one that treads very lightly on the touchy political terrain in which it’s set.
The linchpin attack is a tensely staged broad-daylight maneuver in which we see terrorists disguised as police infiltrating a Western housing compound, where oil-company employees and their families play ball and tend barbecues. Sudden bursts of automatic-weapons fire are followed by horrific bomb explosions, and when the mayhem abates, more than 100 people are dead and more than twice as many are wounded.
In Washington, D.C., Agent Fleury gets word of this attack while giving a talk to a grade-school class of cute little kids, among them his especially adorable son (Tj Burnett). Fleury immediately sets about assembling an investigative team. He chooses Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), an explosives expert; Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), an intelligence analyst; and the aforementioned Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), whose field is forensic evidence. After some initial head-butting with timorous politicos fearful of rocking any Mideast boats (an actual, deplorable feature of the U.S. response to the Khobar Towers attack), Fleury and his team are given five days to conduct an investigation, and they fly off to Riyadh.
Their Saudi hosts aren’t very welcoming. They forbid the FBI agents to work at night, to touch Muslim corpses or to collect any evidence at the scene of the attack. Fortunately, a sympathetic police colonel named Faris (Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom), who is shown to have adorable kids of his own, decides to help out. He eases their way past various bureaucratic and cultural obstacles, and soon he’s assisting them in chasing down the terrorist mastermind.
Berg pulls off a couple of impressive action sequences — especially, it must be said, that car-chase scene, a chaotic attack on a busy highway. But he’s heavily reliant upon the familiar frenzy of hand-held cameras and machine-gun editing, and he shoots everything so close-in that there’s frequent confusion about exactly what it is we’re supposed to be watching. Berg and his screenwriter, Matthew Michael Carnahan, also take an ill-advised dig at Faris’ imperfect English (as we note once again the interloping Americans’ inability to utter any Arabic whatsoever); and they’ve whipped up a wildly improbable attempt at a terrorist video beheading that manages to be both unbelievable and unbelievably offensive at the same time.
Apart from Barhom, whose rough, stubbly warmth makes Faris the movie’s most appealing character, the lead actors seem stranded amid the general uproar. Jamie Foxx exudes his usual star power, but he’s too street-cool to be persuasive as a top FBI agent. Chris Cooper spends his meager screen time slopping around in a drained muck hole looking for whatever, and Jason Bateman — who does get some funny lines, and knows what to do with them — is on hand mainly to be taken prisoner by the terrorists. As for Jennifer Garner, the only reason for her to be in this picture would have to be demographic — how else are you going to get women to come watch a war movie? Garner is given virtually nothing to do beyond training her perma-scowl on an occasional dead body and sucking thoughtfully on tiny lollipops, of which she’s apparently brought along a sizeable stash (allowing her a shamelessly cuddly moment in which she makes friends with a little Arab girl by offering her one).
The movie is oddly uninvolving — it doesn’t seem connected to the real world, especially the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism with which we’re all dismally familiar. The film’s political point of view is irritatingly vague. It repeatedly demonstrates for us that American and Arab parents love their children equally (presumably even those who strap their kids with bomb belts before sending them off to the town square), and it boldly suggests that we should therefore all try a little bit harder to get along. Maybe the dismaying possibility that the world terror situation is far past that point isn’t something a simple action film should be expected to explore. This one doesn’t, and so it remains little more than another piece of bang-boom Hollywood product. Considering the subject matter, that isn’t much.
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