Contains spoilers for The Kingdom
With Michael Mann producing, the one thing you’re guaranteed to get with The Kingdom is an honest to goodness lorry load of shoot ‘em up action. The action sequences in Heat – the heist and the concluding gun battle – are probably some of the best ever filmed, and The Kingdom does its damndest to ensure that its two big action sequences are structurally almost direct lifts from Mann’s undoubted masterpiece. Thing is, exploding Range Rovers, ferocious hails of bullets and the sight of Jennifer Garner holding a gun like it’s about to chip her nail polish does not make a great movie. A good one, sure – but not a great one.
If you're expecting another Syriana, you will come away disappointed. You don’t even have to scratch the surface to find an almost wholly conventional thriller here. And whatever you do, don’t dwell too long on the machinations of the narrative – it is utterly preposterous. Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) leads a small team of FBI agents into Saudi Arabia to investigate the indiscriminate bombing of an American housing compound. Five days later, the team are out (not a bullet wound between them, although poor Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) almost suffers a burst eardrum, bless her) and the crime has been solved. The Kingdom has been criticised for being revisionist, and you can certainly see why. This is the way the US would like to see things done. The reality, of course, is entirely different.
You want more preposterousness? You got it! In order to get ‘in country’, Fleury has to rely upon a friendly journalist, who sows a series of half truths with the Saudi ambassador to the US that Fleury is then able to leverage to get what he wants. Got that? Good. Now forget all about it. If this was Syriana, Fleury’s actions – essentially a man driven by a vague sense of vengeance – would have tragic and probably fatal consequences. But they don’t, purely because all the guff about getting the team into Saudi is nothing more than exposition. The political storm that Fleury stirs up by acting unilaterally simply falls away, to be replaced by big guns and even bigger explosions.
The political and personal relationships that the first hour of the film spends time exploring are quite intriguing, if only for the fact that you expect some sort of concluding pay off later in the film. Haytham, the Saudi police officer who stops the first attack on the compound is initially suspected of being involved, and is mercilessly interrogated as a result. As Haytham ends up being part of the joint US-Saudi team who set out to kick some major terrorist butt, you’d half expect this piece of intrigue to have some sort of bearing on how the team ultimately fare. It doesn’t, which means that The Kingdom doesn’t really have sub-plots – it has a lot of narrative loose ends that ultimately get swallowed up by impressive explosions and gun battles.
All that said, I quite enjoyed it. Even though The Kingdom thinks it’s intelligent, it isn’t really. Treat it like a big, dumb generic thriller and you can’t go wrong.
(The screenwriter of The Kingdom, Matthew Michael Carnahan is at the helm of the US adaptation of State of Play, which is slated for a spring 2009 release. Quite what he does with Paul Abbot’s BBC mini-series remains to be seen, but if The Kingdom is any indication, he’ll turn in something efficient and effective, but pretty unremarkable).