By Pete Vonder Haar | September 30, 2007

Hollywood probably felt a bit panicked when glasnost took hold in the 1980s and the Berlin Wall came down. Suddenly, after years of comfortably slotting the Soviets into the bad guy roles, the studios were left scrambling to find the next nationality of movie heavy. Would it be the Colombians? The Chinese? The Hottentots? Things weren’t going to be easy, for in spite of what you may have learned from “Top Gun,” we as a nation never directly engaged the Soviet Union, and Hollywood tried for several years to come up with someone formidable enough to consistently play the baddie.

And then came 9-11. Whatever other problems it caused, at least it solved our cinematic villain dilemma for the foreseeable future.

“The Kingdom” begins with a refresher course in Saudi Arabian history, detailing the dramatic effects the discovery of oil and the country’s subsequent military arrangement with the United States has had, and touching upon the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the Saudi royal family, who continue to amass wealth through oil exports, and the growing number of radical Muslims, angered at the presence of foreigners in their holy land. The devastating bombing of a Western workers’ residential compound that opens the movie is eerily reminiscent of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, and this sort of blurring of the lines between reality and fiction continues through the film, raising the question of whether we’re supposed to be entertained or nauseated by what we’re seeing.

The FBI has jurisdiction in such incidents, but Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) finds out both the Saudi government and his own State Department aren’t interested in stirring the pot by involving Americans. He does an end-run around the bureaucracy and essentially blackmails the Saudi ambassador into letting his team go overseas to take a look. They’re given five days to gather information and try to link the attack to a Saudi mastermind behind numerous bombings. Once there however, the team is stymied at all sides by the local police and government, who are none too too keen on Westerners swooping into to meddle with their case or further aggravate relations between the royal family and the fundamentalist masses.

Fleury and company do their best, but for a supposedly “elite” counterterrorism unit they’re surprisingly ignorant. How forensic expert Mayes (Jennifer Garner) can hold forth on Saudi cultural differences in D.C. yet act surprised when the Saudi policemen take offense at her bare-headed, snug-fitting t-shirt clad presence is a mystery. And if the American intrusion wasn’t insulting enough, none of the team seems to comprehend why bringing along a Jewish agent (Jason Bateman) might cause an uproar. Only bomb expert Sykes (Chris Cooper) seems somewhat at ease, but he’s Southern and is assumedly comfortable with prejudice and xenophobia, or something.

There are other problems, though these are somewhat more forgivable. For starters, there’s the simplistic fashion in which all relevant cultural information about Saudi Arabia is spoon-fed to the audience (most of us are pretty clueless about Saudi culture, after all), or the way the Americans are depicted as paragons of enlightenment (compared to a society that treats half the population as little more than indentured servants, we’re pretty forward-thinking), or even the relatively minor annoyance of Jeremy Piven playing yet another variation on the Ari Gold theme as the smarmy diplomat. No, the biggest problem is that director Peter Berg seems uncertain what he wants his finished product to be.

After the initial attack, the film unspools like another well-known crime procedural (minus the Who soundtrack) as Fleury and company try to navigate the roadblocks set down by their hosts and piece together what happened. Once this is accomplished (though the ultimate payoff owes more to luck than sleuthing), the final third of the movie morphs into a fairly brutal and balls-out action flick, and had Berg maintained more of this tone instead of giving us an 70-odd minutes of shallow characterization (the Leader with a Purpose, the Wiseass, the Laid-Back Veteran) and off-putting jokes, I might have liked it more than I did.

The film’s main thrust is similarly schizophrenic. Most of the time, Berg and screenwriter Matthew Carnahan make their case that Saudi Arabia (if not the whole Middle East) is incapable of solving its own problems without American know-how, as local police commander Al Ghazi (an ill-used Ashraf Barhom) discovers. Then again, the film’s final message throws water on his, not only erasing a good deal of what came before, but making what feels like a half-assed stab at realism. That boat has long since sailed, for while “The Kingdom’s” final act is plenty intense, it also stretches credibility to “Rambo”-like proportions. Fleury and his team are pinned down in a dense urban area, surrounded by assailants armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, yet despite the attackers’ cover and fields of interlocking fire, the good guys pick them off with relative ease.

I’m glad more mainstream movies are attempting to be topical, but something about “The Kingdom” left a bad taste in my mouth. On the subject of current events cinema, I think there are two camps: those who prefer movies like “Syriana,” and those who prefer movies like “The Kingdom.” Considering I described the latter to a friend of mine as, “Sort of like ‘Syriana’s’ dumber, louder cousin,” you can probably guess where I stand.

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