Judge David Johnson visits the kingdom all the time. The Mushroom Kingdom that is.
Trust No One.
Director Peter Berg turns his lens in an entirely different direction than his previous effort (the goofy, light-hearted The Rundown) and tackles the thorny goings-on of U.S.-Saudi relations.
Facts of the Case
When brutal violence breaks out in a U.S. residential area of Saudi Arabia, hundreds of people lose their lives, including a pair of FBI Agents. The carnage propels the FBI, stateside, to scramble and arrange a special evidence-collection unit to head to the Middle East immediately, no matter what the diplomatic repercussions. Heading this task force is hard-nosed team leader Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx, Ray), medical technician Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner, Catch and Release), cranky evidence specialist Grant Skyes (Chris Cooper, Breach), and goofy intel expert Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development). But navigating the serpentine cultural maze that is Saudi Arabia will prove to be a daunting obstacle, as the team strives to gather evidence and track down the scumbag(s) responsible for the devastation.
This is a solid procedural/action movie with an interesting twist. By blending in the Saudi stuff, The Kingdom takes on heavier lifting than most other Hollywood crime movies and I'm pleased as punch at the straightforwardness of the story. The biggest gratification is that Peter Berg's film uses terrorism as a central theme and—shocker!—Eastern European neo-Nazis or corrupt CIA bureaucrats aren't the perpetrators. Wow, for Hollywood it takes a world of willpower to avoid that default bad guy position.
That said, I don't think The Kingdom entirely works. The biggest flaw is the nature of the investigative procedural elements. Frankly, the intricacies of the crime and the subsequent snooping aren't terribly engaging. The killing was executed by fundamentalist fanatics, so the mystery of motive isn't there to begin with. From there, the burden of generating suspense rests on the shoulders of the investigative team and what they can dig up. Frankly, the process isn't that compelling.
Besides that point—and, yeah, it's a biggie—I really dug the rest of the movie. The cast is a standout bunch from top to bottom, though an honorable mention needs to be given to my man Jason Bateman who is quickly building himself a nice feature-film resume. The Palestinian actors Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman who play the Saudi cops assigned to work with the Americans are outstanding.
And while the buildup is methodical, the final twenty minutes are chock full o' kick-ass action. All hell breaks loose at one point and the film transforms from C.S.I. Riyadh to Black Hawk Down and it's pretty great. Berg has an excellent eye for action and there are some truly major set pieces involving RPGs, car bombs, and copious gunfire.
Finally, I enjoyed the West vs. Middle East dynamic the film worked in. It's a tough gig to balance multicultural naiveté and a serious look at what happens when societies collide, but The Kingdom hits all the right notes. It's serious, grown-up and, like the situation, difficult at times.
As HD DVD stumbles ever forward to shuffling loose its mortal coil, a disc like this makes the format's imminent demise lamentable. The Kingdom is a stand-out on HD DVD, sporting a great picture and audio combination, and a lineup of inventive and substantial extras that rival any which have come before it. The 2.35:1 (1080p) widescreen picture is excellent, gritty, sun and sand-blasted, yet clearly defined throughout. The big action at the end is especially a joy to watch, with flaming wreckage and chaos rendered gorgeously. The lack of a TrueHD audio track is a disappointment, but the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix is up to the challenge—loud, active, and crisp.
The extras are the real story here. First is the In-Movie Experience, the most robust I've ever seen on HD DVD. There's always something to watch throughout the film. Whether it's an interview with a star, on-set footage, costuming or special effects featurettes, a glimpse into weapons training for the actors, or commentary on Saudi Arabian culture, this thing is packed with goodness. In addition, a Mission Dossier offers an update on the investigation (eh) and text factoids about the country (nifty). Finally, during the film's culminating shootout, you can choose which character to follow. While that sounds cool in theory, the execution is unwieldy. Traditional bonus features include: commentary by Peter Berg, a slew of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, an interactive Saudi Arabia history timeline, and a documentary on the big-bang freeway sequence.
Meandering at points, The Kingdom on HD DVD still earns a recommendation for its serious and sometimes exciting treatment of a powder-keg subject. The extras rock and are truly next-generation.
Not guilty. You may keep your hand.
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