Exploitation replaces substance
By Elliott Feedore
The Kingdom opens with a 70-year history lesson of Saudi Arabia. It teaches the few of us that don’t already know that the Saudi royal family is sitting on a treasure-trove of oil, and, for that reason, every twentieth century president has been photographed with them — each and every leader with a nervous smile curling his lips.
A surfeit of petroleum has led to no shortage of troubles, however, and we are treated to images of immense gravity, such as a graphic of an airliner slamming into the World Trade Center. We see American oil workers, playing little league and walking their dogs in their idyllic slice-of-pie suburb plopped outside of Riyadh, get gunned down and reduced to a bloody pulp by a band of terrorists. These fleshy, frenetic images are edited at the haphazard pace of a TV news broadcast; they can’t help but invoke emotion, the kind that longs to be tethered onto something satisfying, enlightening.
But, instead, we get an episode of C.S.I. that crosses over into 24, pumped up with enough blood and bombs to satisfy a 2.35:1 theater screen.
Jamie Foxx plays Fluery, the leader of an upper echelon F.B.I. forensics team sent to Riyadh to uncover the perpetrator of the attack on the civilians as well as a subsequent suicide bombing that claimed the lives of another team of feds that were sent in response. Foxx gives a warm, endearing performance in his first scene—when he reminisces to the day when his son was born—but as soon as Aviators slip on over his eyes and he fires up his million-dollar grin, he’s the badass, cool professional; any chance for characterization fizzles out and goes Hollywood. He and his conscientious Saudi counterpart (Ashraf Barhom) cut through levels of obsequious bureaucracy on both sides to get the job done. This entails rescuing a comrade (Jason Bateman) when he’s captured by propagandists and shooting their way through terrorist minions until they find — fortuitously — the cell leader, an old man with a scowl of anti-American fury painted across his face.
One feels the surround-sound punch one should from the visceral fight sequence, but one feels a little uncomfortable, as well. As the camera whips back and forth, we get our kicks, but that’s all we get. The movie’s setting is not used as propaganda, but as something nearly as unpleasant: a cheap excuse for bloodspray. It has nothing to offer in its action department that a Die Hard doesn’t. But at least John McClane — and his foes — had a sense of humor and a whiz-bang suspension of disbelief working for them. The real-life elements of this story beg that we take it more seriously than a routine action pic, but the filmmakers have merely transposed a tried-and-true formula into the desert environment; it’s like setting a video game in Iraq.
The sole, wan theme of the movie is that we’re all the same, we’re all human, but the writer (Matthew Michael Carnahan) wasn’t even capable enough to provide us with any specimens. We aren’t even given characters to root for in The Kingdom; we’re only given types. It’s the twenty-first century War on Terror, but our crew consists of the most hackneyed players in the book — the no-nonsense leader (Foxx), the good ole boy (a wasted Chris Cooper), the funny Jew (Bateman) and the sensitive, but capable, girl (Jennifer Garner). Our noble Saudi hero, who emotes more genuinely than anybody else, is given kids and — voilà! — he’s really just nothing more than the Arab equivalent of Jamie Foxx. The filmmakers’ disregard for characterization makes their humanist stance self-defeating.
Peter Berg wanted to make a Mideast thriller without an agenda but failed. Softheaded exploitation of current events for a box-office edge is an agenda in its own right.
Elliot Feedore is a junior cinema and photography major who is solid as I-raq. Email him at efeedor1[at]ithaca.edu.