THE KINGDOM directed by Peter Berg, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, with Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. A Universal release. 110 minutes. Opens Friday (September 28). Rating: NNN
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg has made four films that start out complicated and interesting and then get simple in a big hurry.
Well, make that three of them. The Rundown, which starred Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, was never complicated, but was fun to hear evil mine owner Christopher Walken refer to his downtrodden peasant labour force as "oompa-loompas."
Friday Night Lights starts out looking at the complex sociology of a small Texas town obsessed by the achievements of its high school football team, but by the fourth quarter, it's reduced to a straight-up sports inspirational punctuated by bone-crunching action.
The Kingdom, his new film, starts out as CSI: Riyadh. A team of FBI crime scene investigators flies into Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack on an American residential compound. This part of the film looks at cultural interactions and assumptions when arrogant Americans confront a world power whose people question the U.S.'s right to send police into their country.
By the fourth quarter I mean, last 30 minutes The Kingdom devolves into a high-energy shoot-'em-up. Three FBI agents and a Saudi security colonel take on a couple of dozen terrorists who have access to AK-47s, RPGs and hand grenades but have never learned to use them with any degree of accuracy.
There's no denying Berg's technique. He's good with actors, as most actors-turned-director are, and has a good eye. But he's inclined to rely on visual pizzazz over rational thought, paying more attention to the iconically sleek look of a motorcade of Escalades rolling through the desert than the motivations of the people inside them.
He, or his second unit director and editor, can crank up a high-voltage action sequence, but when the movie features a couple of big name stars two Oscar winners on our side, baby! versus a gang of faceless extras, there's no question of who to root for and we can be pretty sure who's gonna win. We don't even know the motivations of the terrorists. (Okay, they hate us for our freedom. Or is there some other motivation this week?)
We won't go into the bizarre shift that the climax demands, when forensics guys are suddenly doing by-the-book building sweeps with machine guns. We won't question that, just as we don't question forensics guys on CSI interrogating suspects. Crime scene investigators are apparently supercops, which is why they're kept in labs: they'd be too dangerous if allowed to run around on the streets.
Berg talks like an artist in his interviews. He claims surprise that people cheer when the Americans shoot back at the terrorists, but that's the response The Kingdom is designed to evoke the terrorists are all-purpose bad guys. (As I wrote about The Brave One, let the heroes gun down a couple of innocent bystanders and see how the audience responds).
Berg is very American; the only thing he fears more than terrorists is ambiguity. An artist lives in the interstices between "good" and "bad" characters. Actually, it's not fair to call the movie's terrorists "bad" characters: they aren't characters so much as signifiers of otherness.
Six years after 9/11, four years into the Iraq War, and this is a Hollywood studio's idea of a response? Yikes.