The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 14, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Kingdom

The Kingdom
: Peter Berg
: Matthew Michael Carnahan
: Peter Berg, Michael Mann, Scott Stuber
: Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven

As I watched
The Kingdom I thought to myself just how well Hollywood can do when it sets its mind and resources to something. This is not a great film but it is a surpassingly-competent one, if that’s finely-calibrated enough faint praise for you. What it is, when you strip away the dressings, is an efficient police procedural with solid characters and some exciting action. Its featured players each provide a little pop of life and detail in and around the evidence scouring and witness interviewing (Chris Cooper is reliably excellent as a crusty explosives expert), and when it comes time for guns blazing, grenades bursting, and cars chasing there’s a solid balance of modern speed and camera jitter that nonetheless never imposes on the movie’s sense of its own seriousness. That’s not easy.

But look at those dressings – rather than the usual gritty American urban streets, The Kingdom takes place in Saudi Arabia, a foreign culture whose fate is inseparably entwined with our own. We open with a credit sequence that is also a history lesson about Saudi Arabia, the way oil dollars and who receives them underpins every aspect of their society, the handiwork of their most infamous citizens, and the ups and downs of America’s relationship with a monarchial dictatorship that maintains downright medieval attitudes about human rights and the female gender. It is likely 90% or more of the viewing audience will come in knowing next to nothing about any of it.

And right there, two minutes of Hollywood film gives us a more effective context for understanding the mess that we’re in right now, and the mess that its characters are facing, than anything the noise machine of cable news has produced in the last six years. That’s pretty tragic. But when they’re determined to, filmmakers do know how to do their homework.

The plot turns on a devastating terrorist assault on an American oil workers’ compound which leaves hundreds dead, including some FBI agents. Jurisdiction is a thorny business, especially since the royal family makes trouble for themselves whenever they act too cooperative with the wishes of the American government. An FBI evidence response team led by Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is determined to take on the case, but just getting to the country while the evidence is still fresh is going to be just the first of many hurdles, hazards, and frustrations.

Arriving through what amounts to hitchhiking and blackmail, at first the team can only walk amidst the rubble, observing, by day; while by night they’re chained into a school gymnasium for their own safety. Medical examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) has to cover up her more womanly attributes in the presence of the local media, and is forbidden to touch the skin of dead Muslims. Director Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights) manages to install a layer of tension into all of her scenes, just little bits of body language to communicate that the Saudis consider her whole being unsettlingly improper, and that she can feel this without anyone having to point it out, and must muscle through her work in spite of it.

And the Saudis conducting the investigation display a certain lack of forensic experience. General Al Abdulmalik (Mahmoud Said) takes a police officer who acted heroically, settles on a conspiracy theory in his mind, and begins beating the officer in the hopes that he will confess to this conspiracy. Why does he have extra uniforms like the ones the bombers used? The cop claims it’s because he sweats excessively, and needs to change. The General wants to pummel a different answer out of him, while Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) gets the bright idea to check the cop’s locker for sweat-stained uniforms.

The royal family wants the “strong” General to run the investigation, while Fleury’s team begins to see the earnest good sense of the Colonel and lobby for him. This is the real tension of The Kingdom: that there are rational people on every side who are trying to do the right thing, but whose efforts are thwarted by those who capitalize on chaos and brutality. The Colonel is an inspiring figure with an instinct for what is the honorable version of his job; the way in which he and Fleury’s team gradually become comrades, even to the extent of that American movie tradition of partner-ly banter, is one of the highlights of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay.

The increasingly-savvy Foxx recognizes he is in movie star mode here, and tampers down the personality fireworks in order to act more as a center of gravity. This allows the afore-mentioned Cooper to step up, ditto Jason Bateman as an analyst with a sweet tooth that the others treat like a kid brother in over his head.

This is all in keeping with Hollywood tradition, as is the moment where the hunters become the hunted, and that memorable little discovery that makes you gasp oh-my-God-the-killer-is-here! You get a race against time, a noble sacrifice, heroes pressing for a truth that everyone around them would rather let lie. We know this routine and The Kingdom works it with lively precision. The foreign setting may distract you from the familiarity of what you’re seeing; but better yet, maybe it will deepen your appreciation for the work it took to transplant it and make it fit so seamlessly.


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