Reign of Error – The Kingdom reviewed

5 October 2007

The Kingdom arrives in cinemas setting itself up as a self-proclaimed “intelligent” thriller, part of Hollywood’s attempt to capitalise on the success of the Bourne franchise and create more grown-up action films. The announcement of such intentions, however, places a larger burden upon films like The Kingdom to deliver sophisticated social commentary in lieu of a swathe of action set-pieces. Most of these films instead fall uncomfortably between the two stools of all-out action and Michael Moore-esque polemic.

The Kingdom, judged on its merits as an action film, isn’t too bad. The action scenes, noticeably the opening terrorist bombing, which gives a good sense of the confusion and terror of such an attack, are well constructed. The director, Paul Berg, also appears to have taken a few leaves from Michael Mann’s (on board as a producer) book, with suitably faux-grainy footage giving a heightened sense of realism to proceedings at several crucial points, especially the final shoot-out.

Unfortunately, The Kingdom is not set-up as a straight action film and suffers as a result of the relatively low-level of actual action in terms of screen time.

The meat of the film, in the central second act, is based around the investigation into the original terrorist attack, where the actors, script and political considerations should be holding our interest.

The absence of real political opinions or even thought from the makers of this film is apparent in the opening credits. We are presented with a break-neck history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from its founding to the present day with a mixture of news footage and a timeline graphic, all with a ponderous voiceover. It strikes you as either being a trailer for a particularly bombastic documentary or a lesson for people who’ve never heard of Saudi Arabia, but need to know about it to enjoy this film. It is a touch patronising and a touch useless, as it presents us with very little we don’t already know: oil, American protection, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi etc.

From here on in, the political considerations appear to be those of a Daily Mail editorial railing against bureaucracy preventing police from doing their work, with some extremely clichéd politicians blocking the team. The problems encountered by Jamie Foxx’s FBI team could be those of any police attempting to investigate a crime in a foreign country, yet this presented as biting analysis of the Saudi-US relationship. There are a few nods to actual politics – Jennifer Garner being banned from meeting a Saudi prince and mentions of possible Saudi royal connections to terrorism – but they are just nods.

The “political” element is actually there just to give the film a grounding in the real world to make it somehow relevant. There is the introduction of a token good Saudi policeman, but even with his inevitable burgeoning friendship with Jamie Foxx, there is no real exploration of how these men from allied but vastly culturally different countries interact, barring some terrible and sentimentally scored scenes switching between the two men and their children. Moreover, despite similar scenes with the terrorists’ children, there is no real characterisation or attempt to understand the jihadist mind.

This fits in well with the rest of the film though, as The Kingdom’s makers show that they have missed the point of intelligent thrillers. The lesson of the Bourne films was not to awkwardly and ineptly bludgeon “issues” (conspicuously absent in Bourne) into an action film, but instead to make a realistic action film with good characters, acting and writing. In The Kingdom, all of the characters are paper-thin, but with pitiful attempts to give them quirks, such as making Chris Cooper’s character a Virginian fishing enthusiast. Foxx and Garner phone in their parts and poor Jason Bateman is woefully miscast as the nerdy, “comic” member of the team in a film without jokes.

It’s a shame that The Kingdom takes itself so seriously, as it is not intelligent enough to compete with The Bourne Ultimatum and not dumb enough to compete with Die Hard 4.0. There’s a good twenty minutes of a lost action film buried under here but it’s buried under a dull attempt at relevance.