AP – Simultaneously a well-crafted action flick and a drama about global politics, ”The Kingdom” wants to appeal to both the lowest common denominator as well as those seeking slightly more intellectual fare.
It moderately succeeds at achieving both.
Director Peter Berg (”Friday Night Lights”), working from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, raises some intriguing questions about cultural misconceptions and revenge, then comes up with answers that feel a bit too pat.
He’s assembled a strong cast in Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, then has them solve a complicated terrorist attack in a matter of mere days in a country where they’re not exactly wanted.
The four star as FBI agents who secretly travel to Saudi Arabia to determine who was behind a massive, deadly bombing at an American oil-company compound in Riyadh. (A couple of their colleagues were killed while responding to the blast. This time, it’s personal.)
Foxx, who’s surely overqualified for this gig, nonetheless brings his trademark cool and charisma to the role of Special Agent Ronald Fleury, the team’s leader who finagles last-minute access to the country by threatening to blackmail the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Garner doesn’t get to do much as Special Agent Janet Mayes, the group’s forensics specialist. As a woman she is treated with particular scrutiny, and in a morgue scene is brusquely informed that she’s not allowed to touch the bodies of Muslim victims. Which, in theory, she should have anticipated, since she’s also supposed to be a linguistics expert.
Cooper provides the most substance as the group’s veteran, bomb expert Grant Sykes, who stuns the local investigators with his down-home willingness to get his hands dirty, along with his face and entire body, while digging for clues at the center of the bomb’s impact.
And Bateman, in a rare role that lets him show he’s capable of more than comedy, co-stars as intelligence guru Adam Leavitt. Yes, he gets a few chances to crack wise and provide comic relief, but he’s also the one who ends up in the most terrifying situation of all.
Our fantastic foursome run into bureaucratic roadblocks before they even leave the country; the attorney general, played by an overly pompous Danny Huston, prohibits them from travelling to Saudi Arabia out of concern for the sensitivity of Saudi royals, which they defy. Once they arrive, they find they’ve been assigned a baby sitter in Col. Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom from ”Paradise Now,” a real standout), whose job is to make sure that they’re safe, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with making sure they carry out a thorough investigation.
Jeremy Piven, as a U.S. State Department official, also wants them to leave as quickly as possible to avoid any potential international conflicts. Essentially, he’s playing yet another version of Ari Gold from ”Entourage”, and by now, it has gotten seriously out of control. Piven has turned into a parody of himself. He has got to show he’s capable of more.
Fleury and Al Ghazi form an unlikely bond, which conveniently allows Fleury to come full-circle from the loss of his friend at the film’s start. Foxx and Barhom are so good together, though, they make this obvious device more tolerable than it should be.
What also keeps ”The Kingdom” engaging throughout is that it’s great to look at. (Mauro Fiore, whose films include ”Training Day,” is the cinematographer). Shot in the 115-degree heat of Arizona and on location in Abu Dhabi, it has a visual intensity and intimacy reminiscent of Michael Mann (who happens to be one of the producers), with a prolonged, climactic gun battle that’s especially brutal.
By having Fleury and Co. annihilate everyone in their path with a seemingly unlimited amount of firepower, perhaps ”The Kingdom” is trying to say that vengeance is blind. But it also happens to look pretty cathartic.
”The Kingdom,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and for language. Running time: 110 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.