American dads, moms and kids watch a softball game in a Middle East compound. BOOM! go the terrorist bombs, and dozens are killed. Local soldiers stop a suspicious car at a checkpoint. BRAAAAAT! spits the evildoers' gunfire, and the soldiers are dead. Back at the ballfield death scene, an ambulance drives off, carrying the wounded. KA-BLAM! A suicide bomber was inside. From the roof of a building a mile or so away, the masterminds of these atrocities record it all on video, for bragging rights later.
It could be Baghdad; it is Riyadh. The Kingdom shifts the current jihad one country south, from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. The movie also rouges the image of Americans in Islamic countries. Instead of being trapped in a four-year (and counting) quagmire, they come into town, clean things up and get out. What many thought would be the 2003 reality of a U.S. fighting force in Iraq has become a film fantasy in 2007.
During World War II, stateside audiences got morale-boosting movies with Errol Flynn or John Wayne leading victorious campaigns through Burma and Bataan. The current Mideast conflict is different, of course. America is not mobilized; only the military is. The enemy is not a country but an ideology, not uniformed but civilian guerrillas. And in a War on Terror there's no sure way to declare victory. But just because our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are less fighting machines than sitting ducks, that doesn't mean that moviegoers should be deprived of go-get-'em war epics or, in the case of The Kingdom, an old-fashioned , new-fangled action movie with the hint of a political statement.
At FBI headquarters, Agent Ronald Fleury is on the phone with a friend in Riyadh when the explosions occur, killing the buddy. So this time (like every time) it's personal. And after kissing his kids goodbye, Fleury is of to Riyadh. To solve the case, he brings along a crack trio that updates the multi-ethnic squads found in old World War II movies, and is guaranteed to piss off the religiously and socially conservative Saudis. Along with the black guy, there's the older man (Chris Cooper) who swears a lot; the woman doctor (Jennifer Garner) who insists on wearing tight T shirts; oh, and the Jew (Jason Bateman). Too bad there's no cross-dressing speaker of Arabic. This film doesn't need Jamie Foxx; it needs Jamie Farr.
Fleury's liaison in the Kingdom is Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), a by-the-book officer who simply must be a decent fellow, since we see him playing nicely with his kids too. The two men bond in standard action-movie shorthand: Fleury punches out a man who had slapped Faris. Then we hunker down to investigation scenes from some CSI: Riyadh: ditch-diggings, bullet analysis and an autopsy. Faris has his own method: he searches corpses not for fingerprints but for missing fingers. Is this a flashback to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps? No, it's evidence that the dead man was a bombmaker. One of The Kingdom's best scenes has Fleury and Faris quizzing a retired terrorist (the effortlessly intimidiating Uri Gavriel). The old man holds up a hand with two missing fingertips and says, "Every bombmaker gets bitten by his own works."
Long exposure to action movies has helped audiences become their own Crime Scene experts, appraising the kick of an explosion, the roll of a vehicle after it's been blown up. Connoisseurs will savor an insurgent attack on the FBI team's van, a shootout between the Americans and the terrorists in a Riyadh neighborhood (when the missiles fly, you'll duck!), and the final faceoff in an apartment building. It fulfills the holy law of action movies: stuff blows up great.
The Kingdom is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and directed by Peter Berg (who has a tiny role here, and a bigger one in a more sober War on Terror movie, the forthcoming Lions for Lambs, also written by Carnahan). The movie's guiding force is producer Michael Mann, who made the small- and big-screen versions of Miami Vice. The Mann style is everywhere evident: in the prowling camera and elliptical editing, the pile-driving music (a surprisingly formulaic score by Denny Elfman), the gigantic, pore-probing closeups of the actors' faces, the vigorous ersatz-realism. Everything moves so much and so fast that the movie seems both gutsy and brainy. But the main strategy is to keep viewers' pulses racing so they concentrate on the action, not the message.
Two messages, actually. One is that if America is going to do any good against Islamic extremism in the Middle East, it needs to link up with moderate Arabs like Faris. The other, more chilling thought, held till the film's final scene, is that this war won't end until both sides can somehow be convinced it's over. And that's an ending even Hollywood in the 40s would have a hard time selling.
That's a mere coda, though, to the film's climactic half-hour, when Berg pours on the adrenaline with cool shootouts, last-minute rescues and the cornering of the evil genius. That should give The Kingdom mass-audience appeal as a retro-fantasy of American grit and smarts, culminating in politico-military triumph. Who needs a stalled, baffled, exhausted Army when our four globetrotting, gun-toting crime-solvers can be sent to the scene to sleuth out and wipe out the bad guys?
I feel a sequel coming on. Next stop for this A Team: the caves of Pakistan!