January 10, 2008
As the war in Iraq drags on, the number of films about it increases until its own subgenre has been created. Along comes the Michael Mann-produced thriller, The Kingdom (2007) that attempts to fuse the action film with a dose of political intrigue while asking the age-old question, why are we over there? With Mann as producer and Peter Berg directing, it’s a pretty safe bet that this film won’t be a complicated expose of the United States government’s foreign policy a la Syriana (2005) but closer to a kinetic thrill-ride in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001).
The opening credits sequence condenses the last 60 some odd years of the history of the U.S.’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and our dependence on their oil in a few minutes. When a compound full of American citizens located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is attacked by terrorists leaving 100 dead and over 200 wounded, the FBI sends a small team in to investigate. Ronald Fleury (Foxx) is the righteous, no-nonsense leader of this team who doesn’t suffer fools, like the Attorney General (Huston), gladly. Because a large U.S. military presence would offend the Saudi royal family, Fleury uses his connections to get permission for him and three other agents – Grant Sykes (Cooper), a bomb technician, Janet Mayes (Garner), a forensic examiner, and Adam Leavitt (Bateman), an intelligence analyst – to land in Riyadh for five days.
Once there, the FBI work with the Saudi army with Col. Faris Al-Ghazi (Barhom) as their representative and a glad-handing sycophant from the State Department (Piven). Initially, Fleury and his team are not allowed to touch any of the evidence or question anyone unless Faris is present which doesn’t sit too well with them as you can imagine. Pretty soon, the FBI agents are trading gunfire with terrorists in the streets and staging a rescue mission when Leavitt is kidnapped.
Director Peter Berg adopts Michael Mann’s all-business tone while aping the style of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) in a way that screams, “This is an important film!” but tries way too hard. Predictably, the action sequences are when the film really comes to life as Berg opts for a gritty, claustrophobic, hand-held camera approach that is particularly effective during the knock-down, drag-out fight between Leavitt, Mayes and a terrorist trying to kill them.
The Kingdom attempts to create a balanced view by showing Faris during his off-hours, spending time with his family but this is done in a rather obvious way. The screenplay also tries to humanize him in a scene where he and Fleury engage in small talk and he tells the FBI agent about his motivations for finding the terrorists. Faris starts off as a stand-offish type, clearly wary of these American interlopers, but they eventually reach a level of mutual respect. However, these are only tiny breathers between the testosterone-fueled action sequences.
The film shows the futility of the U.S. forces as represented by Fleury and his team against very well-prepared terrorists. However, the screenplay reduces these characters to stereotypes: the confident, cocky team leader (Fleury), the good ol’ boy veteran (Sykes), the guy who cracks jokes all the time (Leavitt), and the tough as nails woman (Mayes). The film never develops the characters beyond these well-worn archetypes and the result is another one of those films where the Americans come in and show the foreigners how to get things done.
Along the way, The Kingdom illustrates the point that we are losing the war in the Middle East like we lost the one in Vietnam because it is impossible to tell who the enemy are and who are our allies. At times, this film feels like a recruitment film for the FBI. Do yourself a favour and check out Syriana, which takes a much more complex, thought-provoking look at our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and why we are stuck in such a tricky political quagmire.
There are 11 minutes of deleted scenes that aren’t put in any context and lumped together. They do flesh out some of the relationships between characters but were probably cut for reasons of timing and pacing.
“Character by Character: The Apartment Shootout” allows you to see this action sequence from the point-of-view of each of the main characters which is kind of a nice touch.
“Constructing the Freeway Sequence” takes us through how they planned out and then shot this scene. As you would imagine, a lot of work when into coordinating everything and making sure that it was pulled off successfully.
“The Making of The Kingdom” is a 35-minute, eight-part making of featurette. We get to see Berg and Mann talk about the genesis of the film. We see how the cast and crew prepared for the film, like learning to make bombs and how to fire guns. This is a pretty detailed look at many aspects of the production and offers some insight into how a film of this scale is put together.
“History of The Kingdom: An Interactive Timeline” is basically breaking down the timeline we see in the opening credits into a slideshow format. However, there is very little additional information which is a disappointment.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Peter Berg. He actually visited a U.S. compound, like the one depicted in the film, in Saudi Arabia. He says that they wanted to create realistic, visceral action sequences and actually had to tone down the carnage of the terrorist attack that opens the film. He also addresses the criticism leveled at him that he relies too much on hand-held camera shots. All in all, this is a fairly decent track.