Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
The latest film centering on terrorism and its global effects, The Kingdom tries its hardest for the longest time to not degenerate into a big budget action flick. Alas, in the final third it succumbs to what would seem to be either a bad reaction by a test audience, or the demands of the execs at Universal to give its audience some gun fights and explosions. Or maybe it was just that the filmmakers were coming in so under budget that they had to expend the millions that were allotted to them (That happens all the time in Hollywood, doesn't it)? This brings up a question. Why would Director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, Friday Night Lights) be given all of this dough to begin with? Doesn’t a filmmaker have to have some kind of track record before they’re given carte blanche anymore? Not that all this musing will matter, because I’m sure The Kingdom will make big money at the box office, mostly BECAUSE of its final half hour. Too bad, because up until then it really seemed to be going somewhere interesting.
The Kingdom begins by giving us a Cliff's Notes history of the United States and its relationship with Saudi Arabia and their oil. It then lands in modern day Saudi Arabia, where a brash terrorist act kills over a hundred people, both Americans and Saudi. Enter Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), an F.B.I agent who lost his best friend in the attack, and thus wants to find out exactly what happened and who was behind it. The idea is immediately shot down by the powers that be, but Fleury takes matters into his own hands and heads out to the desert with his crew of three, including Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and Adam Leavitt ( Jason Bateman).
Once in Saudi Arabia they set up shop in a school gymnasium and are supervised by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who also lost several people in the terrorist act. At first Fleury finds that his team’s access to the crime scene is limited, but once he establishes a rapport with Al Ghazi things begin to open up, especially since Saudi Prince Thamer (Raad Rawi) wants it to be known that the government is a hundred percent behind the mission to catch the terrorists. (Speaking of public image, Jeremy Piven seems to come straight off the set of Entourage to play an annoying U.S. Embassy representative. Piven’s character is here for comic relief but ends up being just an unnecessary distraction.)
As Fleury and his crew begin to compile evidence, it looks as though things are beginning to point towards a known terrorist who has been in hiding (where could that plot device have come from?). His signature seems to be the inclusion of marbles into his explosives, but as one former terrorist mastermind tells Fleury, “Finding him is like trying to find a ghost.” However, just as we are getting involved in the investigation, the film takes a drastic turn and becomes a rescue mission involving an improbable kidnapping, which of course requires the de rigeur shootouts, explosives and lots of bloodshed. It’s such a sudden change, it feels like it's a totally different film than the first hour and fifteen minutes. It’s as though screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan had no idea where to go with the investigation plot and therefore decided that throwing some nonstop violence at us would suffice.
All of this is too bad because up until this shift in tone the film really did a good job of developing the relationship between Fleury and Colonel Al Ghazi, who while at first may not trust each other but soon begin to realize that they have the same feelings about what is happening around them (and maybe even the same way of handling it all). Ashraf Barhom is fantastic as Al Ghazi, and in fact his performance nearly carries the film.
The Kingdom is well directed by Berg, who along with his cinematographer Mauro Fiore, really put the audience in the middle of the action by giving several scenes a war photography type feel. If only the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions and didn’t cop out over the last thirty minutes. Maybe then The Kingdom could be placed on the same shelf along with a film such as Syriana. Instead it ends up being just another forgettable action flick.