“The Kingdom” represents the latest in a recent line of grainily edited, realistically approached, politically minded films set in the modern Middle East. But whereas “Syriana,” “Jarhead,” “Babel” and others tend to over-intellectualize their material to the point of pretension, “The Kingdom” seems finally to find the correct balance between commentary, cinematic merit, old-fashioned action and, at last, humor.
Like a good episode of “24,” the setup makes almost no sense, but it still defines clear motivations and drama. The supposed premise is this: A group of terrorists execute a vicious attack on a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia (“The Kingdom” refers to the nickname for the region), killing 100 soldiers. Because of inexplicable political holdups, the FBI doesn’t want to send people to the Middle East to investigate and try to track down the terrorist cell, even though it becomes immediately clear the Saudis aren’t going to make much of an effort.
In comes the Dream Team (cast by a director with an apparent proclivity for first names beginning with J): Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Piven and Chris Cooper — apparently James Cromwell was booked — compose an eclectic quintet bubbling with crackling chemistry.
Through some secretive meeting in some strange person’s car, Foxx is able to secure a plane for his team, and they slip through the cracks of the FBI bureaucracy. In The Kingdom, the five are up against a number of disadvantages: the Saudis are trumpeting their arrival for international PR while trying to prevent them from potentially dangerous situations; Garner is prohibited from events because she’s female; the police (except for one Colonel) are extremely uncooperative. Through the Colonel’s help and brute force, the goal becomes clear: locate and destroy Osama crony Abu Hamza and take down his efficient cell.
The film strikes a good balance throughout. A well-produced timeline educates on Saudi-U.S. relations and thoughtful commentary is worked in throughout the film. The omnipresent shaking camera style (the film is produced by Michael Mann, who directed “Collateral,” the first film to really popularize the technique) is employed, but without being disorienting, as is so often the case. At the same time, in many ways, “The Kingdom” is an old-fashioned action movie — car chases, suspenseful music, gun fights aplenty. In conjunction with the action scenes, the final element — comedy — is what should make the film the most commercially successful Middle East politics movie.
Bateman, former star of “Arrested Development,” provides the laughs for the most part (with Piven doing his best to catch up), as his operative, Adam, whines and moans his way through the challenging circumstances. The acting is strong throughout the cast, who aptly handle a script that turns quickly from zappy one-liners to plot-driving exposition to meaningful monologues. The other standout is Garner, who delivers the film’s most awesome action scene at the end of the film. After winning Best Supporting Actress at the Toronto Film Festival for the much-buzzed about rom-com “Juno,” Garner may have confirmed her comeback with her applause-inducing turn in “The Kingdom.”
Most importantly, “The Kingdom” proves that Middle East political dramas don’t have to be a sordid affair. They can have simple plots. They can make sense. They can be funny. They can have car chases. And they can still pack a hell of a political punch.