- Jason Bateman attacks his agent: "I can't believe you let me take this part!"
The Kingdom is the first film from Peter Berg since the actor-turned-director's Friday Night Lights, which spawned an acclaimed, if struggling, franchise for NBC. There will be no small-screen spin-off of The Kingdom -- there are too many corpses lying around to populate a sequel, much less a series. Besides, it would be redundant: The Kingdom is essentially C.S.I.: Riyadh, starring Jamie Foxx in yet another movie his Oscar statue will watch with shame.
The Kingdom is being released in a season heavy with dramas critical of the Iraq war: Rendition, a Reese Witherspoon/Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle about the imprisonment of innocent Arabs; Redacted, about crimes committed by U.S. troops; and In the Valley of Elah, about the toll war takes on child soldiers sent to the slaughter. On some weird level, The Kingdom wants to be treated as seriously as those entries: There is an animated pre-opening-credits sequence that attempts to explain the United States' dependency on Saudi oil in less than two minutes, and includes a cartoon plane flying toward the World Trade Center. (Berg has enough sense and taste to cut to black before impact.)
But aside from the occasional murmured reference to Iraq and the so-called War on Terror, The Kingdom is little more than a run-of-the-mill, kill-'em-all fuck-you -- a film in which the good guys (which is to say, the white guys) spend two hours tracking down the bad guys (the brown guys). It intends to boil the audience's blood within minutes, as dozens of U.S. citizens -- all oil workers, naturally, living in a Saudi compound -- are machine-gunned and blown to smithereens by jihadists who've infiltrated the police force. There are countless images of dead children and their grieving parents; Berg, whose directorial style could best be described as anxious, wants us demanding our pound of flesh before the end of the first reel.
And so in comes the cavalry, an FBI investigative team consisting of Ronald Fleury (Foxx), the commanding officer who finagles his way into Saudi Arabia without the attorney general's OK, and a cast of other replaceable parts, whose only definable tasks are to shoot or get shot. I spent 45 minutes wondering precisely what Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner's characters are doing in Saudi Arabia and came up completely empty. When Bateman finally gets kidnapped and threatened with the world's most prolonged beheading, and Garner picks up a machine gun and starts looking for Bateman's kidnappers, I realized: That's what they are doing there -- playing Cowboys and Indians for million-dollar paychecks, and trying their best not to look as stupid as they come off in a brainless movie.
Chris Cooper knows what he's doing here, and it's acting like Chris Cooper -- tough as nails and hard as a hammer, in a soft, silly part. He's the FBI guy down in the muck, getting dirty while he pieces together the clues to a mystery everyone already knows the answer to. The bomber is identified early on, so the movie's one-track mind is fixated on finding Bomber Guy. At least every episode of Law & Order contains one gotcha-twist; not The Kingdom, which is Berg's attempt at IDing and finding Osama bin Laden -- or his cinematic counterpart -- and sticking a machine gun up his robe-wearing ass. It's as if someone gave Toby Keith a video camera.
There is, of course, one good Saudi here: Ashraf Barhom, as the police chief who frowns upon his superiors' torture and welcomes the Americans. But for all the affection the filmmakers claim to have for their pedestrian hero, he's little more than a sacrificial lamb -- a noble pawn who quickly finds that, to the Americans, he's no Jason Bateman.
The Kingdom, in other words, is bloated and dumb. Jeremy Piven shows up as a government lackey who might as well be named Ari Gold. Frances Fisher appears as a Washington Post reporter who does Foxx a favor that might be considered unethical, if it weren't so damn confusing. It's all noise and nonsense -- a hateful waste that adds nothing to the dialogue, only yippees and hell-yeahs. And the last two minutes are downright execrable -- an excuse masquerading as an explanation for the ever-growing pile of corpses in the never-ending pile of movies that pretend to say something real about life and death.