The Kingdom
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The Kingdom

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As with most things in life popular movie themes seem to go in definable cycles. In World War II German and Japanese spies appeared to be everywhere. During the sixties it was those Communist Russian agents that filled the movie screens. Whatever the public fears most becomes fodder for the scriptwriters of Hollywood. That is not to say that some of the greatest films of all time didn’t start with such formulas. Using the above examples we have ‘Notorious’ for WWII and ‘Torn Curtain’ for the cold war and that is only look at the works of Hitchcock. Now we are being inundated with films about only about terrorism but that are centered on the war Iraq. For the American public it would appear that one place in the Middle East is as good as any other for a thriller so for the latest flick by director Peter Berg he uses Riyadh, Saudi Arabia instead of the more war torn Iraq. He does create a fairly taut movie that is fast moving and gripping. It does, however, come apart towards the third act and tries too hard to touch on all the mandatory themes of these turbulent times. Ultimately the ending is one huge action sequence. Like many films that rely on the pervading fears of the audience this one paints a very bleak view of the ‘enemy territory’. Just as Russian was typically shown as a grey, dismal nation the Middle East here is full of terrorist cells with suicide bombs practically lining up. It doesn’t do the box office much good if the viewers think there may be good people around; it is better to have danger lurking in every shadow.

The film employs the new standards for a crime thriller. There are many brand new investigative and forensic techniques and methods used throughout the movie. It touches on the vast difference in how women are regarded and treated. There are the prerequisite references to the modern bad guys, fundamental religious terrorist. All of this keeps the action moving but the downfall is it becomes a jack of all genres and master of none. There is even a historical retrospective of American involvement in the Middle East to open the flick. It has to be incredibly difficult to mesh a psychological thriller with an explosive action movie. To his credit Berg gives it a good try. Even with the faults of the film spreading itself too thin the movie remains very good entertainment. In that respect it is like a child on Christmas morning. There are some many toys to play with he runs frantically from one to the other. Sure he is having a great time but he might enjoy himself more if he concentrated on one toy at a time. Berg switches in and out of genres with breakneck speed. The film is worth the effort to keep up though.

After the brief history lesson the camera pans in on a softball game. At first it could be any park in Middle America but soon we see there is a sinister man lurking nearby watching with binoculars. The game is being held in a heavily guarded community in Riyadh filled with foreign oil company workers. In the guise of police officers terrorist shot their way into the peaceful community. This was only the decoy to draw the real guards away. As the shooters are themselves being shot another fake guard moves to the middle of the game and sets off a suicide bomb. When the dust clears over a hundred men, women and children lie dead including two FBI agents. The political pressure in Washington quickly intensifies. Shortly afterwards Special Agent in Charge, Francis Manner (Kyle Chandler) calls a colleague Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx). As the American authorities are shifting through the rubble another bomb goes off killing many more including Agent Manner. Fleury informs in team of the death of Manner and the others. His forensic pathologist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) is overwhelmed with emotion but with a few words from Fleury manages to bring herself under control. The senior management of the FBI deny Fleury’s request to go to ‘the Kingdom’ to investigate. He does not take no for an answer. Fleury has some sensitive information about the Saudi ambassador that gains his cooperation. Fleury uses a Saudi plane to get his team on site. Also on the team besides Fleury and Mayes are computer expert Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) and Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) master of anything explosive.

One in ‘the Kingdom’, as Saudi Arabia is called; the team finds more than the expected road blocks to their investigation. No one trusts Americans, especially ones that are poking into a suicide bombing. Also doing their best to impede the progress of the investigators are elements within the American authorities, specifically the FBI. There seems to be several reasons why permission was denied. Fleury has to play a balancing act between all the factions slowing gathering the needed evidence to what really went on that day. It is not as simple as it would appear; the conspiracy runs into the highest levels but that does not deter Fleury and his people.

This is the first major blockbuster film for Peter Berg but there are few indications of this. Perhaps this is why he wanted to pull in so many genres but overall he does a great job of it. I greatly look forward to seeing his next opus. The film is paced nearly perfectly. It starts off with the timeline lesson of the area but after that it moves. There is a natural slowdown in the second act which does work. The first section of the film explodes to set the stage for the film. Then you need to dial back a bit for the investigation. This leaves you in an excellent position for a grand slam ending that is sure to get your heart pounding.

There is absolutely no doubt that Jamie Foxx is the new Renaissance man. He sings dances and handles comedy and drama with equal ease. His innate sense of humor even gets to shine through here. He can handle those corny action hero lines and get the audience to enjoy them. Foxx moves from touching scenes with children to action star without missing a step. This is the first post-baby film for Jennifer Garner. She always light up the screen and this film is no different. After all she was the only thing that made Electra something that you could watch. In this film she is the sole woman on the team in a land where women are little more than property. He American feminist sensibilities are insulted but she has to pull back to get the job done. Chris Cooper is one of those actors that may not be in the public eye a lot but when he appears on the screen it is pure magic. He commands the scene every time the camera pans to him. He is the definition of professional actor.

Universal knows how to make a DVD release work. The film is released both as a regular widescreen DVD and in Blu-ray. The anamorphic video is near reference quality. The color balance leaps off the screen. The Dolby 5.1 audio is amazing. This is the new movie to show off that new home theater sound system. The front speakers give a great channel separation. The rear speakers fill the room with a natural ambience. The real treat is the sub woofer; it slams a sonic shock wave across your living room. For extras there is a commentary track by Berg. It is interesting to hear the process a new action director went through. There are deleted scenes of course. Two of the main action scenes are deconstructed. The first is the apartment house scene where each character’s movements are charted. Then there is the freeway chase scene laid out in detail. Topping things off is an interactive time line. This is not the best action flick around but it is up there close to the top.

Posted 12/27/07

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