Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
An Early Fall Movie Gunning for the Title "2007's Greatest Middle Eastern-themed Flick"
The Kingdom (which hits theaters on September 28) is a very good mix tape of a movie. It starts off as a Middle East Picture — you know, one of the eight million well-intentioned films addressing America’s confusion about the Middle East that’ll be coming to theaters this Fall — morphs into a very serviceable police procedural, and then, in the last third, happily turns into a very exciting action film. Like a good mix tape that condenses several albums to just the hits, The Kingdom cuts out the boring parts and just gives you the good stuff. There may be a potential depth that is lost when you cut away the tough parts of an album or movie, but The Kingdom never sits in one place for too long, and you never get bored.
Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Narc and Smokin’ Aces writer/director Joe)’s script is about a bombing that takes place in a compound where American workers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia live (the movie doesn’t really dwell on this, but I’m just guessing that most of them work in the oil industry). Jamie Foxx is an FBI agent who manages to get his small team “invited” to observe the investigation into the bombing. Besides Foxx, there’s bomb expert Chris Cooper, who provides the gravitas; Jennifer Garner, who provides the eye relief; and Jason Bateman, who provides the laughs. When the team arrives in Saudi Arabia, they realize two things: 1) that they’re not particularly welcome in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and 2) that the Saudis are shitty investigators.
The thing that works about the script is that it’s very modest in its ambitions, giving the formidable talent brought together to execute it the breathing space necessary to come to life. Unlike a Middle East film with the Promethean ambitions of Syriana, or a heart-on-its-sleeve Message Picture like upcoming Fall release Rendition , The Kingdom mainly aims to please. Its setting in Saudi Arabia makes it feel timely, of course, and there are some bits of Teaching About the Middle East in it (including a really, really cool opening credits sequence that zooms through 100 years of Saudi history with great visual panache), but at heart the setting functions to make the fish-out-of-water action plot involving the four FBI agents come to life.
Director Peter Berg uses the same basic color palette we saw in Syriana and will see in Rendition in a few months, and spices things up with a lot of Greengrass-ian documentary-style camerawork. Paul Greengrass (of Bloody Sunday , United 93, and the last two Bourne movies fame) didn’t introduce the shaky camera, uncomfortable close-up, and choppy editing that signifies the “documentary-style” approach to feature filmmaking, but he’s its most skilled user of it these days, and it’s working so well right now that it’s getting hard to imagine an action film that doesn’t use at least some of its techniques feeling real and visceral anymore. Berg’s use of this style makes the Learning About the Middle East section of the film feel at least somewhat immediate and interesting, and then pays off in dividends during the giant action sequence the film closes with.
This first section of the film, with all its familiar tropes about the culture clash between America and the Middle East, gets The Kingdom off to a very slow start, so much so that I was squirming in my seat with déjà vu during the first 40 minutes. It doesn’t help that Jamie Foxx plays the lead, and that his lead role is burdened with making us care about him grieving over a person who died in the blast that we only saw for about thirty seconds. Foxx can be a wonderful performer when he’s playing a very narrow range of emotions suited to his style. These include overconfidence (which he plugs into for most of Any Given Sunday), silliness (In Living Color), and being Ray Charles. He’s a flashy surface performer, and who’s great when that’s what the role calls for. What he’s not good at is suggesting great depths of inner suffering, and that’s what he’s called to do in the beginning of The Kingdom. It’s a tall order for any actor to make us care about his grief when we’ve only seen him in one scene in the film, and Foxx has problems pulling it off.
Luckily, this is a mix tape film, and by the 2nd Act, it switches gears to become a very bouncy police procedural as Foxx and co. finally connect with their initially standoff-ish Saudi handlers and start investigating the explosion, American-style. Carnahan and Berg pull out the Big Guns in this section to finally engage the audience, and the big guns work.
The Big Guns in Act 2:
1. Two people from disparate cultures who don’t understand one each other finally connecting, discovering their common ground, and realizing they like each other. This is where Foxx’s particular skill set pays off. He’s very good at a sort of patronizing buddying up, where he makes a friend laugh while simultaneously making the audience laugh at that friend’s square-ness. This is the bread and butter of a lot of black comics who crossover to mainstream, leading man success. Eddie Murphy had it. Will Smith has it. And Jamie Foxx does, too. Since most Hollywood movies are about white people, the black lead needs to be able to seem at ease amongst them, while simultaneously winking at the audience with a “Aren’t white people square?” kind of attitude that's part and parcel of the persona. In The Kingdom, they substitute “white people” with “Saudi people,” but you get the idea.
2. Watching highly-trained professionals do their job. In this case, we see the FBI team finally get permission to do some real investigative work, and we cheer as the Saudis stand back slack-jawed in amazement and watch some real Yankee Ingenuity at work. Needless to say, at the heart of this Big Gun in The Kingdom is some crypto-jingoistic American rah-rah, but the jingoism is hidden enough that even a liberal such as myself can take a bit of rare pleasure in a warm burst of patriotism. Why? Because there’s few greater pleasures than watching a highly-trained professional do his or her job in a movie. This is 100% of the appeal of Michael Mann. I’m kind of surprised he wasn’t involved in this movie. Oh wait: he produced it.
3. Lively cross-cutting between all our main characters finally finding their stride. The opening third of the movie, despite all of Berg’s best efforts, drags with plot exposition and Learning. Once he hits this middle section, he can finally get things bouncing with quick, satisfying edits between each of our team members doing their job. Foxx investigates a crime scene and banters back and forth with his guide; Chris Cooper investigates the blast site; Jennifer Garner performs an autopsy; and Jason Bateman, who has no clear role on the team, stands around and makes jokes. It’s a testament to Bateman’s appeal as a screen presence that he doesn’t wear out his welcome in a movie that already has one comic in a big role (Foxx) and where he doesn’t really have anything to do.
That brings us to the action sequence, and what I suspect is the real reason all this talent came together for this picture. Watching the first two thirds of The Kingdom almost feels like work, where the work involved is us coming to care about these characters. It’s clearly not a great movie –since in a great movie, you shouldn’t feel like YOU, PERSONALLY, have to do work to care about your heroes –but at least by the time you reach the two-thirds mark you finally do care about them. That’s a good thing, because it makes the very effective action sequence even more effective. If this movie succeeds at the box office beyond the chin-scratching Harper’s crowd that usually flocks to Middle East Pictures, it’ll likely be because of this sequence. Berg clearly did his homework planning it out. The gun sound effects feel real. The way the bullets chew through the walls our heroes are taking cover behind make you twitch in fear. And he and Carnahan make the wise decision of putting the most naturally-likeable performer in the movie—Bateman—be the damsel in distress.
Here’s hoping that The Kingdom—a risky, high-budget, “smart” action movie for a major studio—succeeds. Its instincts are in the right place, balancing a good amount of vegetables (learning about the Middle East) with dessert (action!). A great movie it ain’t, but it is a worthy one.