September 30, 2007

The Kingdom fights bad guys, runs from real issues

The Kingdom, a Middle Eastern–flavored thriller starring Jamie Foxx, is a true testament to the magic of cinema. It transforms an appallingly complex, morally ambiguous political situation into a thrilling, vérité-style, almost guilt-free tale of good versus evil. Although set in Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom is about a million miles away from what some refer to as the “problem” of the Middle East.

Jamie Foxx plays an FBI special agent who, along with a crack team (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman), negotiates a secret weeklong investigation of a recent terrorist attack in Riyadh while Washington pussyfoots.

With the help of a sympathetic police colonel (Ashraf Barhom), they are quickly able to circumvent the restrictions placed on them by the Saudi prince and begin investigating in earnest. The tables turn, however, when one of their own is kidnapped, and they must fight to free him and find the perpetrator of the attacks at the same time.

The film begins with a stylized history of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with American oil companies, as if to imply that it is firmly buried in real-world politics and the important issues of our day.

But no one should be fooled. The Kingdom is Dirty Harry in desert camo, with a quasi-vigilante protagonist motivated as much by vengeance as by a genuine desire to solve the crime. Yet unlike Harry, Foxx’s no-nonsense, bureaucracy-spurning tough guy is squeaky clean, morally speaking.

Despite the buckets of blood spilled, Foxx and his crew never have a drop on their hands. Maybe that’s because, for FBI agents, they are seriously thin-skinned, crying over dying victims and trembling when they watch a video of a suicide bombing. The audience is constantly reminded that because everyone has families, we can’t be all that different, as if it’s a surprise that Muslim parents love their offspring.

The opening scenes play out like what some Americans wanted September 11th to have been like. Foxx is—you guessed it—entertaining a classroom full of toddlers, when he receives the call that a horrific attack has occurred. He does not sit squirming in his chair helplessly but jumps up, gives a touching farewell to his son, and heads out the door.

In place of the blundering, politically compromised CIA that Americans have come to know so well, the movie shows a supremely knowledgeable and alert FBI, ready to strike and frustrated by Washington’s reluctance to take action. Once on the ground, the mission is clear: solve the crime, kill the baddie and go home with all our guys alive.

No mention of oil is made after the opening short history.

The acting is nothing to speak of, but that’s not what matters in a movie like this. Relative newcomer Peter Berg has directed a heart-thumping thriller that transposes a classic American trope­—the vigilante cop and his pursuit of justice—onto the shimmering white cities of Arabia.

The movie ends on a surprisingly sour note, which, to me, suggests an inkling of realization that the problems in Saudi Arabia are way over the film’s head. Too bad it’s so willing to exist in a state of ignorance.