Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Kingdom

Somewhere in The Kingdom lies the rapidly beating heart of a fun, straightforward B-movie, the kind of film that is enjoyed and forgotten until it appears in graduate theses about the cultural landscape of a certain time period or the ground-breaking start of a particular auteur. The plot is full of conventional action thrills and formulaic buddy-cop beats with a high-concept twist, and, much like other B-movies, the majority of the film serves only to drive the audience to its most rousing set-piece—in this case, a thrilling shootout in a hostile Saudi Arabian neighborhood. No one making the film seems to have noticed this, though, and as a result, The Kingdom overreaches. The hollow plot is padded out, drama is sacrificed for verisimilitude, and the film is stuffed with dumbfounding scenes that answer questions no one is asking.

After a terrorist group explodes an American housing complex in Saudi Arabia, Jamie Foxx leads an FBI team that heads to the crime scene—-against orders—-ostensibly to help Saudi law enforcement find the perpetrators of the attacks, but really to avenge the death of a friend of his that was killed in the blast. Upon arrival they encounter resistance from the locals, but nevertheless manage to form a mutually beneficial partnership with Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, a Saudi who helps them solve the mystery by telling them about local customs and using his awesome powers of translation. The film takes so many detours before the characters even begin their investigation, though, that they mystery fades into the background. And even when they do start their investigation, there’s no sense of discovery, no joy in the procedural aspects of their work. Despite the flash of text depicting each character’s name and specialty at the beginning of the film, I didn’t even have a grasp as to what most of the agents were supposed to be doing. And, at times, it seemed as if they might be confused as well.

Ashraf Barhom is really quite good as Colonel Al Ghazi, but it’s a thankless role. The character is just another version of the local guide, helping these (much more important) yokels navigate the harsh jungles of his native land while goggling at the weird, wonderful technology they bring to his rustic backwater (in this case, it’s not a Walkman or a flashlight, but Jennifer Garner’s breasts). The film offers plenty of screen time devoted to showing how very real and human he is, but it’s a humanity I never had cause to doubt, particularly as he’s depicted as competent, sensitive, and caring early in the film. Nevertheless, this dunderheaded film bravely depicts that this is a guy who is able to both be a Muslim and love his family and country. Huhwhaaaa????! Such a noble, noble man, and to think, for the entirety of the movie he’s pretty much stuck babysitting Jamie Fox, telling him that Americans aren’t allowed in that alley or in this room people don’t eat apples or whatever.

The notion that citizens of Saudi Arabia, even terrorists, are, deep down, no different than Americans is the ostensible message of The Kingdom. That the viewer needs to be told this is about as idiotic an assumption as I can imagine a mainstream Hollywood film making. What’s more, the set-piece at the heart of the film invites the viewer to participate in the gleeful slaughter of the bad-guy Arabs. This shoot-out is fantastic, as good as these kinds of urban warfare action scenes get. And it’s the only time in the film where what’s at stake is clear and unambiguous, not mired by unnecessary red tape. When the movie concludes by asking the viewer to ponder the moral ambiguities of enjoying such a bloodbath, it feels cheap, phony. It may be the most unconvincing, ridiculous moral to the end of a film since the racial harmony ending of Volcano, where a little boy looked at the ash-covered survivors of a Los Angeles volcano and declared, “They all look the same.”

Would be a good double feature with: Proof of Life


Ham said...

When I watched the commerical for this movie on TV, it looked like a flop. I have never seen the movie, so I'm not going to say that it was bad but it looked like another picture trying to grab box office cash by throwing in explosions, car chases and guns into a poorly composed plot. Jamie Foxx was amazing in Ray, but I have never been impressed from anything else he's ever done and it wouldn't surprise me if he overdid the role.

The Kingdom 2007 said...

The comedy moments are funny and the horror is creepy, couldn't expect more from the movie. Hollywood with its budget should learn a few things.