October 4, 2007

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The Kingdom (R)
Plucky American crime-fighters Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman head to Saudi Arabia to deliver a little infinite justice to some terrorists in The Kingdom, a lively cops-and-robbers-type movie given greater dramatic heft by setting.

Perhaps the movie’s most intense, nail-biting sequence comes at the very beginning, during the credit sequence (which, by the way, you can see for free on movies.yahoo.com). In dramatic visuals, we get the history of Saudi Arabia, from the founding of the kingdom by the house of Saud to the discovery of oil and the ensuing relationship between Saudi Arabia — with its tradition of a very strict brand of Islam — and the oil-hungry West, the gist of which is that all sorts of people in the country are angry at the West for propping up what fundamentalists and human rights advocates agree is a corrupt and decadent government. The most dramatic example of this, of course, is when we get to the 1990s and Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s disapproval of the American troops the Sauds allow in to push back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A nifty little bar graph about oil production and American oil consumption shifts to turn into a skyscraper with an airplane bearing down on it.

When the movie itself opens it’s on the compound for American oil workers in Saudi Arabia, just moments before the place is bombed in an elaborate terrorist attack. We see the crime and know, more or less, the motives of the people behind it. What’s left is to catch them and that’s the job of Ronald Fleury (Foxx), Grant Sykes (Cooper), Janet Mayes (Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Bateman), a task they are particularly eager to accomplish because a fellow FBI agent and close friend of Fleury and Mayes died in the attack. They are told that they can’t go to Saudi Arabia and will have to do their investigating from Washington but Fleury doesn’t accept that. By going around the State Department, he more or less blackmails a Saudi official to let them come to the country to work, though once they’re there it’s not exactly all-access. They have official Saudi police minders — Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) and Sergeant Haytham (Ali Suliman), both of whom seem genuinely eager to capture the perpetrators but have no faith that the country’s officialdom will allow them to do so.

The bulk of the movie is spent in Saudi Arabia (which is actually the United Arab Emirates; the movie makes a pretty good case for why it might be hard to insure a movie like this made in Saudi Arabia) with the four investigators performing what C.S.I.-like tasks they can given the constraints and attempting to find the bad guys, despite all obstacles put in their way by both the American and Saudi governments. Along the way, the mutual desire for justice begins to bond the wary Saudi policemen and their American charges.

If you like the current crop of police procedurals for the inevitable “twist” ending, this movie isn’t much for the shocking reveal. But for those intrigued by the investigative nitty gritty and by the thrill of the chase, this movie delivers. We get moments of “what’s behind that corner” breathlessness and plenty of shooting from behind the rubble action. Foxx and Cooper are good at this kind of butt-kicking and Garner digs deep — getting rid of all those rom-com giggles to bring back no-nonsense season one of Alias Sydney Bristow. Even Bateman holds his own as a believeable always-gets-his-man investigator.

And, as overheated as my description of the movie may sound, this isn’t some “shock and y’all” revenge fantasy. There’s nuance here and, as with all the best police-related stories, the general dissatisfaction and annoyance that comes with the realization that not only is the official system not going to help its law enforcement, it’s kind of rooting for them to fail. Barhom is particularly good at displaying this kind of constant frustration.

The Kingdom is fast and loud and blunt but it is also clever and engrossing. Using all the trappings of an action movie, it offers up some kinda smart commentary on international relations on the macro and micro level. B

Rated R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence and for language. Directed by Peter Berg and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, The Kingdom is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures Distribution.