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A Confused Kingdom

Last week, I wrote about The Hunting Party, a film that tried (and failed) to integrate geopolitics into a black comedy. This week, The Kingdom attempts the only slightly less daunting task of integrating geopolitics into an action film. (Rather see a movie that leaves out the geopolitics altogether? I'm afraid you have a fewfrustratingmonths ahead of you.) That The Kingdom manages, to at least some degree, to accomplish the feat is a tribute to its director, Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown), who guides the film with poise and intelligence. The problem is that it's not clear these are the qualities the material called for.

The kingdom of the film's title is Saudi Arabia, and Berg opens with a brief history lesson--Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi warriors, the discovery of oil and creation of Aramco--before moving on to more contemporary concerns: Osama bin Laden, the U.S.S. Cole bombing, Saudi ambassador Bandar denouncing the 9/11 attacks perpetrated (mostly) by his countrymen. Political context thus established, Berg turns to the film's precipitating event, a harrowing terrorist attack on Americans at an oil company picnic in a compound in Riyadh. The assault, by men wearing Saudi police uniforms, begins with automatic-weapon fire and a grenade; but, just when the horror seems over, a more awful second wave--a truck bomb meant to take out not only survivors but their rescuers, too--erupts. By the end, more than a hundred men, women, and children are dead.

Back in the states, a handful of FBI agents are chomping at the bit to investigate the atrocity and, perhaps, deliver a little payback: Tough, stoic team leader Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx); shell-shocked Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), who lost a close friend in the attack; sardonic vet Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper); and wisecracking, not-all-that-enthusiastic Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), who protests that, when he suggested someone had to do something, he meant someone else: "I didn't say 'I,' " he explains. "I said 'FBI.' "

It briefly seems the group will be spared the trouble. The Saudi government wants to handle the case itself, and the State Department and U.S. Attorney General (Danny Huston) are inclined to let them. Fleury, however, has other ideas, and personally blackmails a Saudi princeling into inviting his team to Riyadh to conduct a quasi-official, highly supervised inquiry. From the moment they set foot on Saudi sand, much is made of the fact that the FBI agents have themselves become prime terrorist targets. And indeed, as their investigation brings them closer to the mastermind behind the bombing, one of their number is snatched to be the star of a webcast beheading, necessitating a rescue that calls for the best in American fortitude--and firepower.

Until its peculiar conclusion, the script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan, practically chants "by Jingo!": the patriotic G-men, the craven bureaucrats (for anyone unclear on what the film thinks of the State Department, it casts Jeremy Piven as Foggy Bottom's man in Riyadh), the decadent royals, the murderous fanatics. All that's missing from the roster is a duplicitous French diplomat.

But Berg, who in interviews has expressed concern that his film might seem jingoistic, has done everything he could to tamp down such worries: the actorly cast (in what might easily have been a vehicle for Vin Diesel or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ), the Bourne-esque, artfully jittery camera work (I'll be happy when this fashion passes); the humane, understated tone. Even macho lines such as "The only thing that matters is how you want to go out, on your feet or on your knees?" are uttered without bluster (in this case, by indispensable character actor Richard Jenkins, playing the head of the FBI). The lingo may be pure George W. Bush, but the delivery more closely resembles Joe Biden.

The result is an action flick re-imagined as a prestige film, and most of the time it works surprisingly well. Universal Pictures certainly thought so, pushing The Kingdom's release date back from spring to fall, in an obvious (if improbable) bid for Oscar consideration.

Berg, who's spent more time in front of the camera than behind it (he played the smitten rube in The Last Seduction and a doctor on "Chicago Hope," among other roles), coaxes fine performances out of his actors, with the exception of his putative lead. Since winning his well-deserved Oscar for Ray, Foxx has delivered a series of closed-off, oddly irritable performances--in Miami Vice, Dreamgirls, and now The Kingdom. It's a worrying trend for an actor who recently seemed poised for greatness. His co-Oscar winner, Cooper, does far better, taking an underwritten character and making him the unapologetic center of nearly every scene he's in. (His response, as gunfire and rockets whiz overhead, to a Saudi colleague's explanation that they've stumbled into a bad neighborhood is a sublime "Yeah, no shit.") Bateman may never quite track as an FBI agent, but he's an enjoyable presence nonetheless, and Garner makes the most of what is surely the movie's silliest role. (The inclusion on the team of a frequently tank-top-clad female agent surely says more about American moviegoers than about Saudi-U.S. relations.) Below the marquee, Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom delivers perhaps the film's best performance as the group's Saudi chaperone-turned-accomplice.

Still, for all the ambition of Berg and his collaborators, The Kingdom's seams still show. By largely eschewing the typical superhuman-good-guy/sneering-bad-guy frame and staging its violent set pieces with far more shock than awe, the movie foregoes many of the easy pleasures of the action genre. And Berg's smart, nuanced direction notwithstanding, the film lacks the underlying sophistication to quite ascend to the level of Serious Political Film. For most of its length, The Kingdom is wise enough not to reach for that particular apple, or at least not too conspicuously. But in the closing minutes, it gives in, with an ill-advisedly arty twist, a declaration of moral equivalence so utterly at odds with the entire thrust of the film that even those sympathetic to its content may find it off-putting.

This ostentatious pulling out of the rug is, I assume, one of the reasons for the studio's Oscar optimism. But ideological schizophrenia is not ideological sophistication, and the conclusion of The Kingdom undermines what has come before without redeeming it. The proper approach to a script that veers toward jingoism is to take out the jingo, not to leave it intact and then offer an abject apology at the end, which seems to have been Berg's solution. It's a shame, too. With The Kingdom, Berg has established that he's a filmmaker worthy of being taken seriously. Now he just needs to find material that can make the same boast.