Judge Victor Valdivia thinks he understands the pain and rage felt by the characters in this film; just this morning, he got some shampoo in his eyes and it hurt really, really bad.
Our reviews of The Kingdom: Series One (1994) (published January 11th, 2006), The Kingdom (Blu-Ray) (published December 3rd, 2008), and The Kingdom (HD DVD) (published January 24th, 2008) are also available.
An elite FBI team sent to find a killer in a hostile country.
As an action thriller, The Kingdom is top-notch, full of great action scenes and tense moments. As serious drama about terrorism and politics, it generally works, although it's sometimes burdened with clichés and lapses in storytelling.
Facts of the Case
In the walled compound near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the American employees of multi-national oil companies live, a massive terrorist attack takes place that kills hundreds of men, women, and children. FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jaime Foxx, Collateral) assembles a team of investigators, including forensic specialist Janet Mays (Jennifer Garner, Daredevil), bomb tech Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper, American Beauty), and intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, Dodgeball) and immediately fights to go to Saudi Arabia to solve the crime. Escorted by Saudi police officer Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, Paradise Now), the team runs up against bureaucratic stonewalling and cultural clashes, but slowly builds up a trust with Al Ghazi and pieces together a possible solution, even as their arrival could make them targets of another attack.
The Kingdom belongs to the recent string of films that have attempted to deal with the modern "war on terror." Starting with Paul Greengrass' Flight 93, Hollywood has made a number of films related to the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. If most of those films were not exactly commercial smashes, they were at least given points for intellect and courage. The Kingdom was about the most successful of these, and many critics remarked how that was because it's really more of an action film, without much of the political or dramatic ambition of films like Redacted or World Trade Center. That criticism is unfair, since while The Kingdom does supply plenty of action and suspense, it also contains enough moments of consideration and insight to make it far more than the brain-dead, jingoist shoot-'em-up many feared it would be.
From the beginning, The Kingdom demonstrates that it has more ambition than to merely pander to anyone's stereotypes or bloodlust. The opening credits give a concise history of the Kingdom of Saud, from its inception in the 1930s until today, and it does help put the story in the proper context. The film also shows its intelligence in the little details. When Mays attempts to perform an autopsy on the bodies of the terrorists, she is quickly forbidden from physically touching them, since a woman touching the body of a Muslim man is a haram, or grave sin. Similarly, when the team lands at the Riyadh airport, there is a bit of tension when the Saudis realize that Leavitt has been to Israel, which, under Saudi law, is enough to ban him from entering the country for life. Such little details add a welcome flavor by painting a realistic portrait of the difficulties that the United States faces when attempting to solve any problems in the region. In the same way, some interesting minutiae uncovered throughout the investigation later pay off in a big way during the climactic showdown.
The performances are all uniformly excellent. There are no real standouts (although Bateman and Jeremy Piven, playing the requisite weaselly diplomat, deliver most of the film's humor) but the actors all quickly become identifiable as their characters. The characterizations are not complex—with every character, what you see is essentially what you get—but in many ways, they don't need to be. Giving any of the team members an elaborate backstory would have detracted from the story at hand, and The Kingdom's conciseness is one of its virtues.
Though Peter Berg (who directed Friday Night Lights) directed the film, Michael Mann produced it, and the visual style is primarily his. The look is sleek and dark, full of blue lighting and crisp, pristine visuals with a slightly jittery, documentary-style grittiness. Some shots look as if they could have come from Collateral (in which Berg had a supporting role) or Miami Vice. Berg isn't quite as distinctive a visual stylist as Mann, apart from his extensive use of handheld cameras, but he does show a flair for big action scenes. The two major ones—an assault on the team on a freeway in broad daylight, and the climactic shootout in a dangerous neighborhood that follows—are staged and shot perfectly. Both are full of rousing moments and gripping tension, but blessedly free of the frenzied jump-cut editing that can make scenes in other action films hard to follow.
Because The Kingdom is frequently so clever, it's baffling how the film sometimes falls into standard action movie pitfalls, suffering from a degree of predictability. As soon as a certain character has a deep, bonding conversation revealing details about childhood and family, it becomes obvious that said character will not make it to the end of the movie. Similarly, Berg stoops, in the weakest and most hackneyed scene, to show that Arab characters are, in fact, just like their American counterparts by showing them playing with their families and friends as Fournier and his team do the same. And of course, there is the climactic shoot-out, with a reasonably final resolution that would be wonderful, if it was all actually possible to have any sort of closure in the Middle East. But it's arguable that the film's reliance on such old chestnuts is a necessary way to give the audience a certain comfort level to approach material that would otherwise be too painful and realistic to be palatable. If The Kingdom does sometimes rely on banalities, it has enough smarts to not shy away from the harder questions it brings up, particularly in the closing scenes, where we learn that the ending that the team members thought they earned isn't anywhere near to any sort of conclusion.
In the end, The Kingdom works because it's a well-crafted piece of entertainment that has enough ambition to inform, but not so much as to be overbearing or didactic. It's worth noting, however, that the violence in the film is rendered realistically. The opening terrorist attack, in particular, is meant to be horrific and is. Berg wisely doesn't turn the film into a gorefest, but he also doesn't hesitate in showing the grisly consequences of such an event, and there are some scenes that may be too intense and graphic for squeamish viewers. Those who can handle them, though, will be rewarded with an entertaining, intelligent thriller that's a cut above most films of its ilk.
The Kingdom is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (there's also a version presented in full-screen). The transfer is clean, with no grain or fuzziness to speak of. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is thunderous during the explosions, but sometimes fades a bit during the softer dialogue passages.
The disc is full of extras. There is a commentary by Berg, but it's unfortunately not particularly illuminating. There are long pauses and Berg only occasionally shares his thoughts about the story and how he filmed it. It's especially frustrating that Berg's comments are absent during some of the most crucial scenes. He does reveal some interesting bits here and there, especially about the script's original ending, which was radically different from what he chose to film. Still, considering the complex and difficult themes the film addresses, the commentary is something of a disappointment.
Also included are deleted scenes (11:05), all stitched together with no breaks. Most are just additional lines of dialogue and are not missed. There is one extended monologue by Mays, though, in which she outlines her theories about how and why the attack occurred, that perhaps should have been left in, as it directly relates to some of the history presented in the opening credits.
From filmmaking enthusiasts, the best extra is "Character by Character: The Apartment Shootout," a collection of four individual versions of the climactic shootout as seen through the coverage for each team member: "Fleury & Al Ghazi" (3:37), "Janet Mays" (3:55), "Adam Levitt" (3:25), and "Sykes & Haytham" (2:41). Each sequence is fascinating to watch, not only because they contain additional lines and shots not included in the finished film, but also because they demonstrate just how a major action scene is carefully edited from different angles and locations into a coherent whole. The four versions are also viewable with a "Play All" option.
"Constructing the Freeway Sequence" (18:16) details how the freeway assault was choreographed and shot. It's standard making-of fare, with special effects techs, stunt drivers, and various crew members explaining the fine points of action scenes. It's nothing we haven't seen on any number of other DVDs, although Bateman does get off a couple of funny one-liners on the set.
"Creating the Kingdom" is a making-of documentary split over eight parts: "Obligation to Authenticity" (7:17), "Fire in the Hole" (2:26), "Simple Ballistic Issues" (4:15), "Building a Kingdom" (6:16), "On Location in Abu Dhabi" (3:30), "King Style" (3:09), "Foreign Relations" (4:37), and "Friendship" (4:01). These are also available to view with a "Play All" option. It's far more informative than the usual promotional fluff, with some fascinating particulars about the techniques and facts the actors learned while visiting the FBI academy. There's also the remarkable story of Barhom and Ali Suliman (who plays Al Ghazi's friend Sgt. Haytham), the two Palestinian actors who had never made an American film before. Once again, Bateman delivers more humorous asides.
Finally, there's "History of the Kingdom: An Interactive Timeline," a more detailed version of the timeline presented in the opening credits. This one contains various dates that, when clicked, give some textual information about the major events in the country's history. It's worth a look, and does give some particulars about the Kingdom's thorny relationship with the United States.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one key failure in The Kingdom's storytelling, and though it's not exactly a spoiler, some readers who want to see the film completely cold may not want to read further. The attack that puts the story in motion is set off by terrorists disguised as Saudi police officers. As a result, General Al Abdulmalik (Mahmoud Said) of the Saudi National Guard is put in charge of the investigation. Early on, he is introduced, in a truly harrowing scene, as he beats and tortures Haytham in order to ascertain how the terrorists acquired the necessary uniforms. It's made very clear that he, not Al Ghazi, is in charge of the inquiry and that Al Ghazi's only job is to escort the FBI team around and keep them out of trouble. Yet after a couple of confusingly written and edited lines of dialogue, Al Ghazi seems to be in charge and Abdulmalik all but disappears. It's a significant flaw, especially since his scenes could have provided an opening to discuss the uneasy relationship between the techniques used by American investigators and the harsh and cruel methods sometimes used by those helping them. Why introduce the character with such a brutal scene and then drop him so abruptly? In a film that has no qualms about scenes reminiscent of the Khobar Towers attack and the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, it seems somewhat of a cop-out to not develop this storyline further.
For all its flaws, The Kingdom is a cut above most action thrillers, and is refreshingly free of the excesses that characterize too many action movies. If it's not quite as smart as it should be, it's still far smarter than it could have been.
The Kingdom is acquitted, with minor reservations, and should please anyone looking for a good thriller. Universal has put together a great DVD with enough extras to satisfy fans.
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