Shock and Awe

Send your potty-mouthed cheap laughs to Ryland at [email protected]

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Despite its questionable politics, Peter Berg’s busiest film yet, “The Kingdom,” blows up a lot of stuff and kills a lot of people, really well. Which is to say it never bores, however bull-headed it may bluster. The flip side, of course, is that the film assaults its audience as much as its villains (and its heroes). Aping Paul Greengrass (the “Bourne” sequels) and producer Michael Mann’s recent work (“Miami Vice”), Berg’s always—and already—moving camera has neither the sense of style (composition, color, editing) nor the formal curiosities of his influences. Worst of all, though, “The Kingdom” has a simple bully mentality, not any generosity.

Might makes right, and even though America’s might is relegated to an elite FBI quartet led by Jaime Foxx in “The Kingdom,” America is right. For, after a calculated terrorist attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the eager-to-avenge Foxx muscles his team into the eponymous Kingdom to solve the crime American-style (read: the way the native police and army cannot). The Saudis don’t know how to investigate but the Americans do; a Saudi cop is accepted by Foxx only after he confesses his love of American television; the Saudi cop has kids just like the American Foxx has kids. Everything would appear equal were it not for the fact that everything is dictated by an American code.

This would not be a problem in a movie set in America in 2007, because it might be funny (think of what Preston Sturges would have written). This is all wrong for a movie set in the Middle East in 2007 because, well, it can rarely be funny (“Jarhead” had the good sense to be about, and take place during, the first Gulf War, privileging absurdity over billboard politics), but the gravity of the topical plot of “The Kingdom” is routinely disrupted by Jason Bateman’s wise-ass background chatter. In a movie this neck-deep in dead bodies it should come as no surprise that the potty-mouth American inserted for cheap laughs gets abducted for a broadcast beheading. This rote, callous characterization-cum-plot-device is too blatant in these zeitgeist “political” movies for it to be an effective (subtle?) mirror for the audience and its potential prejudices. Or, this version is just plain too jokey to take serious. Especially in an otherwise overwhelmingly sober political-action film.

Berg’s execution of “The Kingdom” may be sober and serious (and, let’s face it, a little reckless) but there are some well-staged action sequences throughout. None approach the delirious precision of Greengrass’ “Bourne Ultimatum” nor do any have the sound design of any Mann film (remember the guns in “Heat”?) but each scene makes sense and moves well. The action peaks early in the climax, during Bateman’s explosive freeway capture, but the shootout in a T-intersection which culminates in an all-American grenade toss is better than anything in the year’s other propaganda film, “Transformers.”

And no matter what Berg’s film says about the never-ending cycle of violence at its close, “The Kingdom” is just as racist as (though a little less fascist than) its robot counterpart—which is an odd claim given that it stars Foxx, a black man. But, of course, there are other Others to hate on out there, and “The Kingdom” sure does like its Near Easterners in an American box—or wrapped up in bombs. Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman (stars of the 2005 suicide-bombers-are-people film “Paradise Now”) are both fine here, but their characters, save a few scenes of Muslim prayer scored to Explosions in the Sky’s weepy-heroic guitar solos, are prized for valiant American mimicry. I look forward to the time when we Americans make stars of Muslim actors for being valiant Muslims just as we have now made Jaime Foxx a star for being an American actor, not a black American clown.

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