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The Kingdom’ falls

Claire Reising | Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Imagine the trigger-happy fight scenes of S.W.A.T. combined with the intrigue and cultural message of Syriana. Director Peter Berg attempts to blend these two elements in The Kingdom, but the plot and characters lack the depth needed to deliver a strong political message, and the film reverts to a stereotypical action flick.

The Kingdom sets up the storyline with a montage of America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, compressing the 1970s oil crisis, the Persian Gulf War and 9/11 into a mere five minutes. After this brief history lesson, the conflict begins as a Saudi Arabian terrorist group led by Abu Hamza (Hezi Saddik) attacks an American neighborhood in Saudi Arabia, killing hundreds of civilians and an FBI agent. When the FBI hears the news, agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) convinces authorities to send a team to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack, but the team must overcome culture shock and an inflexible government to succeed in the mission.

With grandiose action sequences, Berg relies heavily on special effects, complete with a car chase and exploding buildings. During the terrorist scene at the beginning of the film, the effects contribute to a sense of urgency as blasts bombard the neighborhood and civilians futilely attempt to protect themselves. Eventually, though, the violence grows overbearing and numbing, with incessant explosions and machine gun rounds assaulting viewers’ eardrums.

The Kingdom’s plot shines during suspenseful moments, however, such as a kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat. These personal, intense fights engage the audience more than haphazard machine gunfire, since the characters must depend more on their strength and judgment and less on high-tech weapons.

Ironically, Berg strives to deliver an anti-violent message in the midst of the carnage, but these efforts sometimes get lost in the film’s us-versus-them mentality. The Kingdom establishes a pro-American bias, contrasting Agent Fleury’s friendly visit to his son’s elementary school with a brutal Saudi Arabian police interrogation. Also, instead of trying to learn Islamic customs, the FBI agents view these practices as inconveniences, such as when American forensics scientists cannot touch the bodies of dead Muslims. In an “attempt” to understand Islam, an agent peruses The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Koran while joking about meeting virgins in Paradise.

During one scene, Berg shows the thoughtful side of the Islamic community by briefly portraying a Muslim family praying with peaceful music in the background. However, this scene seems detached from the rest of the characters and plot. The Kingdom better succeeds in bridging the cultural gap through the friendship between Fleury and Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), the Saudi Arabian official who aids the FBI team. Faris is one of the movie’s only dynamic characters, and Barhom powerfully portrays his relationship with Fleury as the two fathers share stories about their sons. When the FBI team first arrives, Faris is reluctant to help, but his stubbornness gradually erodes, and he develops into a likable character.

The other roles, while entertaining, become stock characters to fit the action movie mold. Foxx portrays Agent Fleury as the typical, impeccable, tough-guy hero, and this character lacks the complexity Foxx shows in some of his former films, such as Ray and Collateral. Besides developing a friendship with Faris, Agent Fleury does not change much throughout the film.

Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper also join the cast as members of the FBI team, portraying cookie-cutter Americans. Garner’s willful forensic scientist clashes with Islamic customs, and Cooper’s cowboy-like explosives expert clumsily handles the language barrier.

The Kingdom gives American audiences a thrilling, reassuring story, in which the “good guys” inevitably prevail. However, viewers looking for political or cultural insight will not find much in this film.