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ISSUE 121 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/12/2007

Thriller falls short

By David Henke
Variety Editor

Friday, October 12, 2007

Take Jamie Foxx in all his action-hero glory, mix it with Jennifer Garner's stealth-agent sex appeal, toss in a few one-liners from the likes of Jeremy Piven and Jason Bateman and bracket it between two intense action sequences. Sound like a solid action movie formula? Good, because it is.

Then, set the movie in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, and try to deal with the social and emotional complexities of terrorism, oil politics and Islamic extremism. Sound like a watered-down version of "Syriana"? Good, because that's exactly how "The Kingdom," director Peter Berg's latest production, comes across.

To be fair, the movie is a stand-out action film. The two sequences of violence, placed at the very beginning and tail end of "The Kingdom," are truly gritty; the use of hand-held cameras throughout the film works especially well in these scenes, when the jumpy shots give the scenes a nervous, chaotic atmosphere.

Like most action movies, however, the plot of this film must be taken with a barrel of salt. The movie begins with the bombing of an American civilian compound in Riyadh; the multi-faceted attack kills more than a hundred civilians, including an FBI agent stationed in the city. The Saudi royal family, worried that allowing American forces into the country would destabilize the already-fragile political situation, refuses to allow any American troops or agents into the country.

Despite this, special agent Ronald Fleury, played by Jamie Foxx, manages to blackmail a Saudi prince. The prince allows him to bring in a crack team of FBI agents (including Garner, Bateman, and a very cool Chris Cooper), even though the FBI Director, the President and practically the entire U.S. government opposes inserting any American force into the politically precarious situation.

Once on the ground in Riyadh, the team finds every attempt they make to investigate the bomb scene hampered by nervous Saudi authorities, who worry the agents' presence may set off more violence.

They are given five days to examine the situation by the Saudis. Faris Al Ghazi, a Saudi police colonel, played by Ashraf Barhom, babysits them while they try to make inroads into the labyrinth of political intrigue. Piven also makes an appearance as the smart-mouthed American diplomat who would rather that the agents were out of Saudi Arabia than in the middle of this tense situation.

Finally, Fleury breaks through the bureaucratic red tape. He proceeds to beat the stuffing out of a Saudi general - without any political repercussions - while somehow sweet-talking Prince Ahmed Bin Khaled into allowing him greater access to the investigation. The prince complies, and the FBI team, accompanied by Al Ghazi, gets stuck in a rat's nest of CSI-style investigative techniques, car chases, urban shoot outs and kidnappings.

It would all make for a very decent action movie if "The Kingdom" didn't aspire to be more. The movie tries to answer a very pressing question: Why were 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorist operatives Saudi citizens? It's a troubling issue that deserves better than the run-of-the-mill action treatment it gets in "The Kingdom."

Most of the parts in the movie that deal with the theme in the movie come off as forced, and a lot of the seriousness of some early and late scenes in the movie are undermined by nauseating, sappy soundtrack music.

In this instance, "The Kingdom" should've taken a cue from "Black Hawk Down" and included more Middle Eastern instrumental music, rather than airing fluffy guitar tracks during crucial emotional scenes in the film.

So what does work in "The Kingdom"? Like I said, the movie has an incredible sense of tension, thanks to the nervous flurry of hand-held camera shots. Also, Chris Cooper lends some unexpected gravitas to his role as the veteran FBI agent on the team. Really, though, it's Barhom's portrayal of Colonel Al Ghazi that helps "The Kingdom" overcome the action-cliché rut in which so many gun-toting Hollywood movies get stuck. Barhom acts with utter, soul-satisfying goodness; his drawn, sympathetic face and understated determination provide "The Kingdom" with its emotional center point, while his role in the movie reminds us that the social complexities at stake in "The Kingdom" have a heart-breaking human toll.

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