A world within a world comes crashing down in the opening sequence of The Kingdom, the new film from director (and uncredited actor) Peter Berg. An American compound inside Saudi Arabia, where ballgames and barbecues are the norm and uncovered female faces mock the law that applies outside the gates, is attacked by men with machine guns and bombs. The details are thoroughly convincing in this scene -- as machine gun fire sends the Americans fleeing in a panic, one of the terrorists, wearing the uniform of a Saudi policeman, falsely beckons some of them his way before setting off a vest of explosives. Later that night, after first-responders have quarantined the crime-scene and set up their own camp, a second-wave attack hits, destroying the entire area and creating a media event that has to be dealt with one way or the other by the American political machinery. This is a decent set-up for a movie, and it's as well-executed as you'd want a set-up to be, but it gives birth to an oddly-schizophrenic film.
You could almost call The Kingdom a double-feature, although it seems blithely unaware of its bifurcated status. To explain: the first half of the film -- actually, closer to two-thirds -- is professorial and serious, going so far as to offer the audience a tedious lecture on Saudi Arabia's history and political situation, balancing Western-style realpolitik with the needs of a population that seems to prefer living by religious teachings. As the aftermath of the compound bombing seeps back to Washington, an FBI team led by steely-eyed Jamie Foxx and comprised of Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, seeks an entry point to the situation; they want to go investigate the bombing, but the State Department prefers to recognize the Saudi government's 'no boots on the ground' mandate, lest they come off as looking like puppets. Much screentime is given over to a scheme by Foxx to blackmail a Saudi diplomat in order to get his team access, and everything up to this point is deliberately structured as a political thriller. That's why the second part of the film is so surprising.
Again, this second part doesn't occur until the last thirty-odd minutes, but it's such a blast-off from the original conceit that it redefines everything that's come before. After we've sat through a solid hour or more of stoic procedure -- Chris Cooper searching the blast zone for clues, Jennifer Garner studying bodies in the morgue, etc.-- everything goes kablooey. Bateman, whose character has been such a non-entity up to that point that we've started to scribble "How did this role make the cut in the Bateman Revitalization Project of 2007"? in our notes, suddenly reveals its purpose. After all the tires have been kicked, all the blast craters walked around in, and all the dead bodies confirmed as being dead, the FBI team is heading back to the airport in a caravan of SUVs, when they are set upon by a terrorist cell. The vehicle carrying the heroes is run off the road and in a well-directed sequence, Bateman's character is yanked out of his seat and carted off to star in his own beheading video. Now, it's go-time.
What follows is an action bonanza as cartoonish as anything Stallone would put his name on, with a body count probably numbering in the hundreds. Undeterred by the skillful daylight grab of their comrade, the FBI team instantly morphs into a squad of indestructible soldiers, complete with a haul of military weaponry that, for the life of me, I can't remember where it came from. I'm sure there was some explanatory footnote shoved in there somewhere, but one second they are unarmed and the next second they are sporting everything short of miniguns. Garner's character, who has been sold to us as a desk-jockey up to this point -- and a weepy one at that -- turns into Lara Croft, shimmying through ceilings and floors with a machine gun, picking off bad guys and dodging shoulder-fired missiles. I have no idea what to say about that, so I'll just relate that, during her shootathon, someone in the front of the theater I was at -- anyone at the Monday night AMC screening can back me up -- screamed out "Yeah, shoot the towelheads!"
That said, it has to be noted that The Kingdom succeeds on several levels: it's expertly photographed, and the script, while sometimes pedantic, isn't full of howlers. There are some nice action-movie moments during the action section and there are some nice political thriller moments during the political thriller section. Also, one test of a good movie is whether it gives you something to talk about after the movie's over, and I've spent much time this week talking with people about The Kingdom -- specifically, what it says about its writer, Matthew Carnahan and its director, Berg. Did they approach this material as a cynical exercise in genre cross-pollination? Did they ask each other aloud whether audiences would question why a team of reality-based FBI suits suddenly turn into something very different? Did the filmmakers buy it, or did they just expect us to buy it? Or has movie-reality and reality-reality become such a foggy soup that it seems an acceptable conceit that anyone authorized to carry a gun must also have it in them to become John McClane?