The makers of The Kingdom – director Peter Berg and producer Michael Mann — would like you to believe that their film is topical. It is, in the medical sense; that is, applied to a body part without penetrating, in this case the brain. In a different time, that the film moves efficiently may have been enough to partially excuse its inanity. But considering its theater is the middle-east, and its subject is the hunt for an American-killing terrorist, this is hardly the time for cock and bull.
It’s a passionately appealing fantasy to airdrop an American superwarrior to re-wage a lost war, and this time, by God, win it. Though Jamie Foxx looks a more suitable gladiator for 2007 than Sylvester Stallone, make no mistake: this is Rambo all over again.
My problems film are two fold. First, I resent the bait and switch. If you watched the evolution of trailers for The Kingdom , you saw the evidence of significant re-tooling, or at least re-packaging. Originally, the film was pitched as a straight-up action movie. But a few months before release, new trailers emphasized a supposed political relevance; now the film looked a lot like Syrianna . This has to do with the film’s delay from a summer to a fall release, when studios believe audiences are primed to think, or at least think about the Oscars, and heavier movies stand a better chance at the box office. That’s the theory. The theory is nonsense. A good movie is a good movie regardless of when it comes out. So is a bad one.
The Kingdom begins with a précis of Saudi history, beginning with the establishment of the state in 1932, through the discovery of oil and the setting up of Saudi elites, through the energy crisis and the ’74 embargo and Iraq’s incursion into Kuwait, and finally to the Saudi alienation of Bin Laden. It’s an auspicious opening. We are swept up in a whirlwind of characters, each with his name and title inscribed below his face, as in the documentary No End In Sight .
And then the film changes gears. The history lesson? Forgotten. The big cast of political power players? Dropped. This is a movie in which four Federal agents, with the help of a Saudi policeman but essentially acting on their own, catch one of the worst terrorists in the world within seventy-two hours. Could we have caught Bin Laden if we had moved as quickly in Afghanistan? As I said, the film is about re-waging our old battles.
My second objection to the film is to its entire third act, in which fantasy completely overtakes us and the violent payback we desire arrives in force. I don’t think we do desire that payback; I think they think we’re stupid. A convoy of black SUVs carrying the Americans is struck by a Mercedes carrying a car bomb; and under a hail of gunfire, one of the Federal agents is taken hostage. The scene is well staged; but we’ve been here before, not least in the machine-guns-in-the-street battle from Michael Mann’s Heat (not for nothing was Michael Mann the producer of The Kingdom).
While the captured Fed is being prepped for a beheading (and no points for guessing if Daniel Pearl dies a second time), the remaining Americans are trapped in an alley, pinned down by machine gun fire from the rooftops. They are fish in a barrel, but the American bullets find their mark with the accuracy of a settler’s bullet in the heart of an Indian in a Western. Even Jennifer Garner, who plays the token woman who is along mostly to cast aspersion on the poor treatment of women under Islam, gets to kick the butt of a Saudi man twice her size.
I wonder: if it were released today, would James Cameron’s film True Lies — in which Arnold Schwarzenegger pilots a Harrier jump jet against Arab terrorists with the bomb in downtown Miami – still be a blockbuster? Sadly, I suspect that it would. Complexity can wear you down, and when you’re down, well-produced stupidity has a chance to get by you. Don’t let them do it to you. We’re better than this.