Stylish actor-turned-director Peter Berg wants to make a compelling film. He wants to surprise, stun, shock and elaborate on the nature of two vastly different cultures. Instead, Berg gives us just another action-packed, rock‘em sock‘em, American WHOO-RAH of a film. Where four of us can take on 50 plus, gun-toting, masked bad guys and come out with a few scratches, maybe a band-aid on the neck.
Things get ugly pretty quick in Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom) when a compound housing American-oil employees and their families, are sprayed down with bullets during a friendly baseball game. Cars get wrecked and bombs go off as an unseen villain videotapes the whole event from a hotel room, forcing his young grandson to watch.
Against state department orders, four of the FBI’s most elite personnel manage to get access to the Kingdom for five days. Ronald Fleury (a solid Jamie Foxx) is put in charge of the quickie mission. Along with him are a bomb expert (Chris Cooper, having a little fun), an intelligence analyst (Jason Bateman, who successfully manages to bring his effortless comedic timing to this serious role) and a forensics expert (a powerful Jennifer Garner). No 13 Going on 30 here, Garner, in her best screen role to date, is 100 percent badass. And she wants you to know it, if not by her constant cursing, then by an awesome, balls-out rescue scene.
Another mention in the acting needs to go to Ashraf Barhom, who plays a Saudi police chief, put in charge of the American’s safety. Barhom is a marvel to watch, his face taunt with confusion and turmoil. Look out for him, he will surely become a star.
But even with an impressive cast, Berg can’t seem to find a concrete point. The third act has enough action to keep young boys happy. A dizzying car crash, a holdup in an unsafe part of town and some great standoffs in an apartment complex all achieve grade-A thrills. Berg does have some fun with the script (look for his own brief cameo in an FBI briefing scene); his actors throw out constant one-liners and Foxx gets to give a shot-out to his hometown, Terrell, Texas. But I was longing for a purpose, something more. Much of the film is wasted, channeling 9/11, slain journalist Daniel Pearl, CSI and hell, even some Entourage (gray hair and glasses can’t help Jeremy Piven shake Ari Gold).
Berg is a good director. He has his own vision which did wonders for his Friday Night Lights. He uses the same shaky camera work from Lights and it works well here. But that nice, Texan twang that played through Lights, the subtle, comforting, fitting music, is a curse in this picture. Berg uses that exact same score for The Kingdom, in very awkward moments. Instead of feeling sad or remorseful as Berg intends, the music only made me feel inspired and uplifted, like it did in Lights.
Through its flaws, The Kingdom remains a firm piece of entertainment. It can be a little heavy and it relies too much on the convenience of Hollywood. But Berg is trying to assert the claim that Americans have their own definition of what is right and so do the other guys. The final line of the film is a little too cheesy, but it’s the best Berg can do to sum up his point. I could save you the two hours and reveal it, but don’t worry, I’ll never tell. B-