Jamie Foxx in The Kingdom (2007)
Jamie Foxx’s new action-thriller The Kingdom opens with a nifty 4-minute credit sequence that neatly summarizes the basic history of U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia, illustrating the clash of cultures that has resulted from the collision of the world’s largest oil consumer with the world’s largest oil producer. These four minutes are the closest this film comes to being a lecture however. What follows is not a history lesson but an effective action/suspense picture drawn against a backdrop of current events.
The credits are followed with the introduction of a community of Westerners living in a protected compound in Saudi Arabia. These are oil company workers and their families; an island of modernity in a sea of traditionalism. They do their best to live life according to Western standards (heavy-handedly signified by hot dog barbecues and softball games), but their lives are interrupted by a group of machine gun and bomb toting terrorist who mount a horrifying attack, killing hundreds on this otherwise peaceful day.
When US citizens are murdered on foreign soil, it falls to the FBI to investigate. In this case it’s the team of special investigators led by Jamie Foxx. The ante is raised for the team when they learn one of their own was killed in the attack. Unfortunately the US State Department isn’t keen to have the FBI stirring up trouble in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family is worried that an increased US presence will give the appearance that the royals aren’t in control. Knowing his team is helpless unless they have access to the crime scene, Jamie Foxx pulls some strings in high places and buys his team 5 days on the ground in Saudi Arabia. What follows is the investigation and the complications that rise when the FBI team itself becomes a terrorist target.
This is pretty standard stuff, but it’s elevated by the backdrop against which the story plays out. There is a spider’s web of tensions as the team encounters hostility from all sides. There’s the resistance of the Saudi family and our own State Department and there is hostility from the Saudi police, the Saudi citizens, and even from the families of the victims. To make matters worse, the team finds itself in an environment where every passing vehicle is a potential threat. It is this situation and how the team ultimately deals with it that finally sells the movie for me more rather than the ins and outs of the standard-issue investigation itself. These are your typically cocky Americans, sent into dangerous terrain without even the support of their own State Department. The very thing that allows them to be good at what they do, their unerring sense of infallibility, is not welcome here. They are aliens. The pushy, loud-mouthed American routine isn’t going to play.
Of course the idea of setting an investigation in hostile territory isn’t a new one. Think In the Heat of the Night for one spin on the set-up for example or remember that some of the best detective fiction features an outsider poking his nose into an unwelcoming, insular world. Think Marlowe. This is the same idea in a global, current events context, but the methods turn out to be a little different than what we’d expect. Instead of charging their way through the investigation head first, the key to the team’s success will be toning down their approach while maintaining their belief in what they do.
Jamie Foxx’s character is the first to understand that subtlety is going to be required as he develops a relationship with the head Saudi investigating officer Colonel Faris. The two are wary of each other at first, but they grow to respect one another as they see that they both have the same goal: the just want to catch the bad guys. It’s a game of Cops and Robbers international style. Meanwhile, both men walk a sort of tightrope, navigating the multifaceted dangers looming in on them from all sides. It’s gripping stuff and it helps carry the story through the more mundane procedural aspects of the film’s first three quarters before we’re finally treated to a nicely staged action climax.
Jamie Foxx is good as the smart, level-headed family man and team leader. Jennifer Garner is fine as the capable action female familiar to fans of Alias. Chris Cooper adds his own as the south Virginian most likely to inflame the friction between cultures. Jeremy Piven continues polishing his eerie knack for playing irritating people in his role as a State Department official. The best parts however are Ashraf Barhoum who brings a likeable integrity to Faris (though I admit his character borders uncomfortably on the simple, harmless foreigner stereotype) and Jason Bateman who injects some welcome humor as the dryly sarcastic Adam, a reluctant member of the team.
Those hoping for a commentary on the current US/Arab troubles are going to be disappointed. The Kingdom is more interested in entertaining. The best it can do is to point out what a sticky, complicated situation we find ourselves in and to offer hope that with a little moderation from both sides, common ground can be sought and a common good can be forged. Does the film cheapen important current events by reducing them to the tropes of an empty action film, or does it lend a measure of gravity to an otherwise hollow action film by tethering it to reality? Call me an optimist, but I’m going to go with the latter. Your results may vary.
The Kingdom. USA 2007. Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Cinematography by Mauro Fiore. Edited by Kevin Stitt. Music score composed by Danny Elfman. Starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhorn and Jeremy Piven. 1 hour 50 minutes. Rated R for for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and language. 3 stars (out of 5)