Film Review: The Kingdom

The Kingdom    4 stars
Starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Ashraf Barhoum and Jason Bateman. Directed by Peter Berg. Released by Universal Pictures. Rated R; 1:50.

    Along with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom” gives one renewed hope this year for action dramas that are intelligent and politically aware. Although I liked it better when it was called “Syriana,” “The Kingdom” plots a much more accessible story and will probably find far wider appeal as a result. The visual language of the film will be abundantly familiar to anyone watching movies or television (Berg, remember, first came to notice on one of those “reality medical” dramas back in the 1990s) over the last decade. Shaky cameras, harsh color schemes and bleached film stock are all evidently mandatory for today’s hipster filmmakers, even — or perhaps most especially — when they are swimming up the mainstream.

    In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there has been a terrorist bombing targeting Western civilians at an apartment complex. A team led by the FBI is sent to investigate. Ron Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is the team’s nominal leader and the story’s protagonist. Foxx is in excellent form, and it is reassuring to see that his talent remains unspoiled by some of his, shall we say, less intelligent role choices. When given decent material (“Ali,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Ray”), Foxx can turn straw into gold. When lacking adult supervision, though, he is willing to help pound out pieces of crap like “Bait” and “Booty Call.”

    In “The Kingdom,” Foxx meets his acting match in the form of a Saudi policeman (Faris al-Ghazi) played with fierceness and compassion by Ashraf Barhoum. It is when Barhoum is on screen that the film transcends its humble action adventure milieu. It is Barhoum who, for better or worse (better, I think), takes this from political thriller to morality tale.

    In his capacity as a Saudi colonel, it is made clear to al-Ghazi that he is to keep the Americans safe but not to assist them in their investigative efforts. This does not sit well with the FBI team. As they attempt to apprehend the perpetrators of the apartment bombing, they are drawn into the archetypical web of political intrigue. al-Ghazi’s patriotism and his basic human decency are slowly revealed as his character gradually emerges as the moral center of the film.

    But Barhoum too has competition in the acting department, and it comes in the form of the great Chris Cooper playing another investigator on Fleury’s team. Cooper is a force of nature who illuminates the theater whenever he is on camera. The other co-stars — Jason Bateman and Sydney Bristow, oops, sorry, Jennifer Garner — struggle to keep pace.

    Director Berg can take some righteous pride in “The Kingdom.” His previous breakthrough “Friday Night Lights” was a mainstream success, but it lacked the political acuity of “The Kingdom.” The new film still suffers from a bit of the “rah rah” team spirit (in this case, Team USA rather than a high school football squad) that marred the earlier movie. “The Kingdom” has similar flaws but is definitely a step in the correct direction.