The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been marked by notable feats of arms as well as moments of high drama. We have, over the last six years, seen a handful of special operators invade and liberate one of the most remote and inaccessible countries on Earth, during which Special Forces actually participated in a mounted cavalry charge. We have watched the march to Baghdad. We have seen a few military police in Iraq (One of them female) take on and defeat a much larger enemy force that had ambushed their column. The Marines have written a whole new chapter in their history with the retaking of Falluja, a town occupied by a savage enemy that held no less than twenty torture chambers. And we have seen successful manhunts for such human monsters as Saddam Hussein and his grotesque sons, and the terrorist Al Zarqawi. (The hunt for Bin Laden continues.) And one wonders why Hollywood, with such materials as this to work with, has yet to give us a decent movie about it.
What Hollywood has given us instead is The Kingdom, a sort of combination police procedural/action thriller/war movie with a lot of MTV style directing gimmicks thrown in. The result is a pretty mixed bag. Some of it works, some of it doesnít, and in the end it tells you more about the state of Hollywood politics than it does about the War on Terror.
Directed by Peter Berg, The Kingdom opens with a short history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which explains that Saudi Arabia has lots of oil, and that America uses lots of oil. (Just in case anyone has forgotten.) This thankfully takes only a couple of minutes, and then the movie segues into an action packed opening. Jihadis, disguised as Saudi cops, attack an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia, carrying out a well planned massacre with automatic weapons and suicide bombs. Among the dead are two FBI agents, which leads an FBI Special Agent (Jamie Foxx) to demand that the Bureau be allowed to send a team of agents to Saudi Arabia to help track down the killers.
Of course Saudi Arabia has never, in real life, allowed the FBI to investigate terrorist outrages on its soil, and at first they are reluctant to do so in this movie. But a determined Foxx manages to convince a weasely US Attorney General and the Saudi Ambassador to make an exception for him, and soon he is on the way to the Kingdom with three other agents in tow. (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman). They are assigned a Saudi minder, Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), whose job it is to obstruct their investigation under the guise of keeping them safe. But Al Ghazi proves at bottom to be a good cop committed to catching the terrorists, and soon he is actively helping Foxx and his team.
Unfortunately the second act of the movie, which is mostly a police procedural, doesnít work all that well. This isnít the fault of the cast, which is mostly quite good. Jamie Foxx is a fine actor who has proven himself in action and serious drama, and he turns in a strong performance. Ashraf Barhom is a revelation as Colonel Al Ghazi. Director Berg is at pains to point out that not all Arabs are terrorists or bad people. Thus Barhom has to be the token good Arab in a movie replete with Arabs as terrorists, effete princes, and brutal, sadistic cops. The problem here is that Al Ghaziís transition from obstructive minder to unofficial partner with the infidel cops isnít especially believable. To Barhomís credit, heís a good enough actor to almost make you overlook this. Itís a standout performance, and many in the audience may leave thinking that this is an actor theyíd like to see more of. Another problem with the middle part of the movie is Jennifer Garner. Her performance is good, but someone should have explained to Berg that a Western woman walking around Saudi Arabia in a T shirt will likely get a lot more grief than Garnerís character does in this movie.
After being by turns an action thriller and a police procedural, The Kingdom suddenly morphs into a war movie, and here Berg really brings the thunder. Terrorists ambush the FBI agentsí convoy, triggering a massive firefight that takes up the whole third act of the movie. In the ensuing urban combat, which at times resembles the ambush scene from Clear and Present Danger, Foxx and his fellow agents rack up a body count worthy of a rifle company. The battle is very well choreographed, exciting, and had the audience clapping and cheering, especially when Jennifer Garner sends a Jihadist to Allah in a brutal hand to hand combat scene. (Garner has lost none of the aptitude she showed for action in her Alias days.) Berg is way too fond of herky jerky hand held camera shots when deploying heavy firepower, but the audience was so happy to see the bad guys blown away that no one much seemed to mind. When the credits rolled, some in the audience burst into applause.
The Kingdom is actually a pretty entertaining movie, if one can overlook the second act. The terrorist attack on the housing compound is well researched and quite believable, and Berg handles his battle scenes skillfully. Berg makes the audience wait way too long to get to the good part of the movie, but when it finally arrives it doesnít disappoint. And he also tells us something about the political consensus in Hollywood these days. To date no one has been willing to make a film about Americans at war against terrorism that depicts the military heroically. It would have been politically unacceptable to show American troops blasting jihadists out of an Arab city unless the movie carried some sort of antiwar message. The FBI agents in this movie are allowed to take the war to the enemy and still be considered heroes because, well...theyíre the FBI. Terrorism, to liberal Hollywood, is a law enforcement problem, and simply not a job for the military.
Listening to all the cheering and applause in the theater, one comes away convinced that there is an audience out there ready to be entertained by movies about American fighting men and women at war against Islamist terrorism. But given current Hollywood politics, that probably wonít happen anytime soon.