Sometimes, I wonder how things got so good. In the North Atlantic democracies, life expectancy is at a 5,000-year high; crime is at a 5,000-year low; and we have more reclining chairs and donuts than we know what to do with.
Nonetheless, people prefer to feel as though times are troubled, and with the demise of the Cold War, the most popular current source of anxiety is terrorism, especially terrorism coming from our former colonies in the Middle East.
So films these days, looking for conflict, often pick Arab villains, creating a difficult situation for the politically sensitive filmmaker: How to raise tension without presenting a simplistic and bigoted portrayal of Muslims in general?
Director Peter Berg, best known for his string of very decent acting performances in B-movies, tries to tackle this in The Kingdom by making something of a buddy-cop movie about FBI agents tracking down a terror cell in modern Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, for all his skill in directing action sequences, he can't help sopping up the downtime with trite bits about how we're all alike, brother, and violence is, like, a cycle and stuff.
So a lot of The Kingdom is tedious speechifying and annoying set pieces like an American woman offering a lollipop to a frightened Arab girl. That's the kind of thing where you can see the director's heart is in the right place, but it's still condescending. However, a lot of The Kingdom is made up of exciting, fast-paced action. The whole thing would work better if it just adopted a simplistic 1950s attitude and wasn't weighed down by its clumsy and ineffective attempts at political correctness.
The story starts with a quick overview of American-Arab relations, a sort of PBS mini-documentary that's reasonably informative for its five minutes of static graphics. Then, in order to get the ball rolling, things start blowing up. The initial action sequence is based on two terror events: the Riyadh compound bombing of 2003, and the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996. In The Kingdom, this is played out as an attack on a softball game at an oil company's American housing complex in Riyadh. Murderous Saudi citizens machine-gun a bunch of kids and then blow up the first-responders, killing an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) in the process.
Back in the states, the FBI agent's colleagues have a "they killed my partner" moment and start demanding to be shipped to Arabia to deal with this. Of course, the heartless bureaucrats tell them no, so they have to blackmail a Saudi prince and prove that they have more heart, grit and gritty heart than anyone holding a cabinet post.
Once they arrive, they're chaperoned around by Saudi police officer Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who also is having classic cop-movie problems: The investigation has been taken out of his hands and given to the evil Gen. Al Abdulmalik (Mahmoud Said). Of course, at first, the Americans and Al Ghazi butt heads, but then they have their buddy moment and realize that, you know, they're all cops trying to do their jobs, and the man is just keeping them down.
This leads to some really awful scenes in which FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and Al Ghazi bond over their love of The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man, because, you know, if an Arab dude likes American television, then maybe he's OK. While Al Ghazi establishes himself as The Good Arab, the forces of evil are plotting things like murder and kidnapping and bombing and all those sorts of things that are beloved by The Bad Arabs.
This midsection of the movie plays out like a police procedural, but it's a really bad one. The clues aren't very well established, and the means the police use to get to the bad guys are less CSI and more blind luck.
Still, once things get rolling, they really get rolling, and there's a rousing final sequence with rocket launchers and blood and more partners getting killed. And then it all wraps up with a sequence that helps us, the deeply stupid audience, realize that violence only begets more violence. This is something I never would have thought of on my own, and I'm glad movies like The Kingdom are there to tell me that shooting someone's father in front of his face is not a good way to make a friend. Rather, it seems, it's a way to make ... an enemy!
While there's plenty of good stuff in The Kingdom, I'm afraid of what it portends: Berg will, if he's like most Hollywood directors, not understand that his strength is in lowbrow action, and will ramp up the moralizing in future films. Because that's where the heart is, man! That's what it's all about, and that's what cinema can do--no, wait, has to do--for us: It has to tell us the deep truths that we were too slow and prejudiced and narrow-minded to see on our own. Like, that killing is bad, even when it feels and looks so good. And that buddies can come from different cultures. And that chicks and dudes with different skin colors are all, like, human, and someday, maybe, if there are enough movies like The Kingdom, we'll all see that, and maybe, just maybe, we'll try to get along.
Because, hey, isn't that's what God or Allah or Thor or whoever really wants us to do? Amen.