The opening credits of The Kingdom — as in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — provide a crash course, literally, in the history of U.S.-Saudi relations. Frantic music pounds as archival images flash in a pulsing collage. Then BOOM, there’s an animated black silhouette of an airplane slamming into one of two towers. Then WHAM, the prologue gives way to the fictional present-day sight of Americans and other Western oil-company employees, cavorting with the full swagger of Yankee-centric innocence on the playing fields of a gated Riyadh housing complex — lots of green lawns, lots of baseballs tossed around, lots of heartland-values signifiers.
Then BANG, unknown gunmen in a moving vehicle begin mowing down the crowd with a spray of bullets. And BLAM, a bomb goes off. Chaos follows, and death. Could this be the work of the elusive Saudi terrorist mastermind who goes by the name of…well, why not call him Mosama bin Faden? So shameless is The Kingdom, ignoring consequence and treating its audience like cash-dispensing machines with buttons to be pushed rather than thinking individuals willing to consider the reality of America’s entanglement with the Middle East.
So PRESTO, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is interrupted at a kindergarten (where he’s scoring major Daddy Points as a visitor in his kid’s class) by an SOS call from an FBI buddy on the scene. Foolish, crud-flinging, irresponsible action pictures such as this one love to establish righteous ass-kickers like Fleury as secret softies before the crud is really flung. In a click or two — and against the orders of mealier governmental types — Daddy has gone commando, signing up three fellow elite go-getters to join him in Riyadh with a secret mission to find that unfindable Saudi Darth Vader. One (Chris Cooper) is a good ol’ boy who knows about bombs; another (Jennifer Garner) knows about forensics but apparently has never heard that foulmouthed, lollipop-sucking, basketball-bouncing young women who wear tight tank tops aren’t exactly dressed for success in severely Muslim Saudi Arabia; and a wisecracking third (Jason Bateman) knows about this thing called the Internet (his colleagues still haven’t twigged to websites) but was apparently absent the day FBI classmates learned that people with Jewish-sounding surnames and Israeli stamps in their passports aren’t the best candidates for stealth jobs in the Middle East.
Perhaps reflecting the real-world lack of trained linguists on the government payroll, none speak Arabic. (Perhaps the oversight is just more movie lameness.) But all of them fight and shoot guns real good. And that, in the end, is deemed readiness enough for the movie’s crude purposes. Anyhow, no one interested in giving the story a second thought will be able to figure out what those purposes really are, aside from opportunistic entertainment. As the bomb pro sloshes through a pool of mud in search of clues about the explosives and the forensics babe picks shrapnel out of a dead body, we appear to be on CSI terrain. When Jeremy Piven shows up as an oily State Department yes-man, exuding Ari Gold-en insincerity, the movie takes a lazy, distractingly comedic turn toward Entourage. A subplot involving Bateman is so brazen in its theft of images forever associated with the hideous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl that a decent person might look away in disgust. The sight of a masked gunman on a balcony evokes the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, but for no good reason.
Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman, the stars of the infinitely more compelling Paradise Now, are standouts as two Saudi cops of impeccable honor, but their inclusion feels like a math solution on the worksheet of screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play) rather than an essential counterpoint to the FBI side of the story. And all the pieties about how innocent little children can be turned into the next generation of enemies, and how all daddies — American, Saudi, and even terrorist monster — love their tots, add up to nothing more than vapid chatter.
The Kingdom is directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), an actor-turned-filmmaker with a notably crisp, confident visual style usually well suited to restless action. Here, he sometimes lingers in close-up over the pleasing composition of his movie stars’ faces, admiring them like glamorous fashion ads inserted between flailing action sequences. Why? Maybe to give himself a break from the futility of his mission. C-