“They blew up a goddamn softball game!” sighs one character at the start of Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights) Saudi Arabia-set thriller. Hell, is nothing sacred to the militant fundamentalists whose suicide bomb attack on a western housing compound in Riyadh kicks off this timely tale of Middle East turmoil? Following the efforts of an FBI evidence response team to investigate the blast in edgy partnership with the local authorities, The Kingdom offers an involving portrait of unlikely allies pooling their resources against a common enemy. Or it would, had Berg not elected to finish with an incendiary third act that suggests all the conflicts of the region can be resolved by opening a can of good ol’ Yankee whup-ass.
Partly inspired by a Saudi Hezbollah attack that killed 19 Americans and one national in June 1996, Berg’s film attempts to freshen up an old favourite – fish-out-of-water Feds investigating a crime on unfamiliar soil – with a light sprinkling of geopolitical topicality. As dedicated patriots do a dirty job in hostile territory the Iraq metaphor is there for those who want it. For the most part, though, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (the upcoming Lions For Lambs) is content to fall back on formula clichés: the grudging respect that builds between Special Agent Ronald Fleury ( Jamie Foxx) and his opposite number, Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom); the intransigence of bureaucratic officialdom, represented by Jeremy Piven’s interfering diplomat; and the maternal bond forensics ace Janet Mayes ( Jennifer Garner) forges with a conveniently orphaned infant.
Like Syriana before it, The Kingdom deserves praise for addressing Uncle Sam’s far from blameless role in the War on Terror and the way his ongoing presence in the Gulf creates more instability. Alas, it’s hard to read the all-action climax – a gung-ho assault on a terrorist stronghold where a kidnapped analyst (Jason Bateman) faces execution – as anything else but a post-9/11 revenge fantasy: A Mighty Heart, restaged with a Hollywood ending.
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It may feel a bit like CSI: Riyadh, but The Kingdom earns its keep when it addresses thorny political realities in the Gulf States through the milieu of a culture-clash thriller. Hard to excuse that banzai finale, though.