THE KINGDOM wants to be SYRIANA by way of BLACK HAWK DOWN, but by earnestly following those templates, it renders itself an unsatisfying pastiche that has neither conviction nor surprise, much less the pervasive sense of uncertainty for which it so desperately strives. Instead, it comes across as schmaltzy, predictable, and insidiously imperialistic.
It’s the premise alone that sets itself up for that last. Four crack forensic specialists, who are also FBI special agents, finagle their way into Saudi Arabia, the eponymous kingdom, in order to solve the mystery of who plotted the suicide attack on an American compound there. That there are no crack forensic specialists in Saudi who can do this, well, maybe, maybe not. The real problem comes later, when this crack team goes outside the compound walls to personally track down the gang. Aside from the dynamic possibilities of light artillery and thrilling car chases, possibilities never fully realized, there is this to ponder. Four FBI agents, wearing only Kevlar vests, sidearms, and grim determination take on a town that they’ve never seen before before, rife with religious fanatics and the population who loves them, the latter armed with RPGs and even grimmer determination, and the Americans aren’t mowed down in the first 10 seconds of their surge. Far from it. Here is the subtle but clear message of who is the uber-man/woman and who is just so much wrong-headed fodder for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Plus there’s the loyal Saudi Colonel (Ashraf Barhom) assigned to keep an eye on the visitors who becomes little more than an expository device and the piece’s designated Gunga Din.
Suspense, not a chance. Everyone knows who did it. The team leader, the fancifully monikered Fleury (Jamie Foxx) identifies him to his team when he briefs them before heading out of Washington, D.C. It’s a bin Laden wannabe. Why they need to get to Saudi to track down the specific perpetrators is never made entirely clear except that without that conceit, there is no film and it gives Foxx his chance to do his best Clint Eastwood impression, which is not very good. The other members of the team are more fun, starting with Chris Cooper at his wily and crustiest best. Jason Bateman as the token Jew is the bright spot in a dull work. There is his edgy banter that registers the delicate position he’s in visiting a country with an, ahem, problematic attitude towards Judaism as he maintains a running dialogue of worries from fretting about the lack of speed limits for official cars, to asking if the Israeli stamps on his passport are a problem. Jeremy Piven, in the all-too brief role as the ticked off State Department flunky in Saudi with a glib tongue and a frozen smile over his very white teeth is his only rival. Jennifer Garner does her job of being the eye candy who both weeps and looks grim on cue. Never mind that Ms Garner would never be allowed outside the compound without an abayah, the traditional Saudi veiling that renders the female form into a pillar of black with only eye slits visible to the outside world, she’s striking her blow for liberty in a tank top.
The action, car chases, explosions, and the gunplay that make up the last part of the film are executed with all the élan and gusto of competence. The same is reflected in the script itself, which instead of being stark and full of troubling revelations about realpolitik delivers a brief history of why America defers to The Kingdom, then serves up trite truisms and the blatantly obvious all set to a techno-beat designed to evoke a mood of anxiety where there is none.
THE KINGDOM suffers from a surfeit of self-importance coupled with a lackluster approach all leading up to an ending that is supposed to stun, but doesn’t. Rather, it is as glib as that diplomat’s tongue, and just as cynical as his spiel.