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The Kingdom – Desert Foxx: but Jamie ain’t no Rommel

ok,10 grand and my i-phone. Gimme the keys.

ok,10 grand and my i-phone. Gimme the keys.

The Kingdom – Peter Berg

It’s the sub-text that sucks. On a superficial level this is just an averagely competent action movie with performances better than it deserves. The only difference is the Saudi Arabian setting of the title. The film opens with a well choreographed, strongly edited, only-too-real atrocity committed in one of the American corporate ‘ghetto’ compounds of Riyadh. A special FBI agent colleague and friend of Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is killed soon after calling Fleury in the US to get him to come out to investigate. Fleury has just been describing to what look like about 6-8 year old kids in his son’s school, in eye-popping graphic detail and with dramatic reconstruction, his son’s Caesarian birth. So we feel it might be in the best interest of a load of semi-traumatised schoolkids for him to get to Riyadh as soon as possible. Before he does any more damage to tender sensibilities.

White-hat FBI guys then struggle with black-hat politicians for permission to go to the scene of the crime and investigate. A bit of routine blackmail by Fleury of a corrupt Saudi official (not exactly an endangered species) gets him, explosives expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper doing his always watchable ‘Chris Cooper’); something medical Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner doing a passable Hilary Swank); and photographer and all-round anarcho-smart-ass Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) to Riyadh.

They are met by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) whose mission is to ensure that their investigation remains apparent not real thus demonstrating Saudi co-operation without the embarrassment of actually receiving infidel help. You’ve got it, Faris goes native – you can almost hear the words “he’s one of us” hanging in the air. Some farcical investigative nonsense that recalls the rather good acting in CSI but without bothering with the actual forensics ensues. Grant Sykes’ world-weary seen-it-all-know-it-all matchless FBI professionalism amounts to the profound observation that the pool of water in the crater where the bomb went off might contain evidence. He follows up this deeply incisive insight by dragging a hunk of gurney (wheeled stretcher) out of the water and with uncanny Holmesian-like deductive powers, concludes that “they blew up an ambulance.” Adding somewhat redundantly I thought “that’s nasty”. Nasty? Why not “oops?”

With breathtaking professionalism Fleury (why is that choice of name so irritating? Or is it just me?) then shows why the out-of-their-depth mouth-open locals needed the FBI’s finest to sort them out. With a masterstroke of detecting flair – he interviews some witnesses. To add depth to subtlety they then hive off to the only building near the scene of the crime that could have been the vantage point from which the internet terrorist video of the outrage was filmed. With Faris now fully one of the gung-ho gang, the fantastic fivesome survive an assassination attempt and car chase the perps to their secret Islamic lair. Big fire-fight ensues to rescue Adam whose insouciance and anarchic wit deserts him when it looks as if he might lose his head while all around him are keeping theirs.

The chase, the fights and especially the original atrocity are well enough done. But the story is at best patronising farce; at worst racially stereotypical and offensive. Islamic terrorism and Riyadh aren’t the dramatic source and setting for this product, they are just the excuse to make it – and money. We are encouraged to dislike Saudi’s for all the wrong reasons; while nothing is said of the genuine basis for us to feel uncomfortable that our critical ally in the Middle East is a deeply retrogressive, grotesquely privileged monarchic authoritarian Islamic state. With the profound misogynism that goes with the territory as it were. The enthymemes (suppressed premises) are horrendous: Saudi’s are too stupid to investigate a crime, too ignorant to interview witnesses, and too backward to collect evidence. Super-cool Jamie in his black-on-black shades ‘parachutes’ in with his team and wraps the whole thing up in 5 days with the inevitable semi-automatic guns, noise, firepower and flying, bouncing, exploding automobiles. Sort of, OK guys – now let’s go find Osama. You wish.

This stuff is pretty tacky when honestly fictional. When the real injustices and horrors of the Middle East conflict are used as a setting just to add a fig-leaf of ‘realism’ to this hack product, it amounts to commoditising terror to make a buck. The whole film is so lacking in any subtlety, aspiration, artistic purpose or point that one begins to understand the grotesque historical ignorance and political stupidity that launched the Iraq invasion. Even more why that idiocy was perpetrated without a shred of useful, authoritative, on-the-ground intelligence in both senses of the word. Isn’t it inconvenient you can’t shoot information out of people with a semi-automatic weapon? (By the way, is there such a thing as a fully automatic weapon? Why do they always have semi-automatics – to make things harder?). This all makes the trite irony that supposedly ties up this meretricious, macho, American ego-massaging empty box with a cute little philosophical ribbon, simply an insult to the intelligence and the sensibility of the audience.

One deeply disturbing aspect of 9/11 was that even when we knew the reality of the horror unfolding before our eyes it still looked like a Hollywood movie. The disturbing thing about The Kingdom is that it is Hollywood as Hollywood thinking it is Hollywood representing reality. The increasing inability in the American psyche to recognise the difference has had profoundly harmful consequences. And it ain’t over yet.

(October 2007)

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