RECAP: The Kingdom

The Kingdom (2007): Peter Berg

Saudi Arabia is the kingdom. Let’s get that out of the way. In case you were wondering.

What happens when local terrorists kill dozens of Americans in Saudi Arabia? You get…Jamie Foxx Investigates.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Homegrown Saudi terrorists attack a compound of American oil workers and their families, and the FBI flies in to investigate against the will of many in the Saudi government. 

Hero (6/10)

A pair of bombs explode on an American compound in Saudi Arabia, killing hundreds. Who gets the call? Thanks to an extended introduction to Saudi-American politics that would look great on YouTube, we know that in such cases of American civilian deaths abroad, the FBI gets the lead investigation.

And in The Kingdom, that’s what happens, eventually. Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) has to fight to get his team on the ground in Saudi Arabia, the titular kingdom, because the Saudis, at first, do not want him there, and neither do the Americans.

Fleury is not a man to be denied. He first learns of the attacks while speaking with his son’s classmates at an elementary school, how President Bush learned of the 9/11 attacks (though it was a random school).

When you put Fleury on the case, things are going to get done. Neither government wants to see American cops in Saudi Arabia, but Fleury won’t take no for an answer. He works his networks, using a Washington Post reporter and the Saudi ambassador, demanding to get boots on the ground, “Right the fuck now.”

Those contacts pay off, and Fleury assembles a team of three other agents to take a rickety flight 9,000 miles to a desert nation with no rock music.

Fleury never stops antagonizing his proverbial bosses until they accede to his demands. Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is charged with shackling the FBI agents in their investigation. These Americans are meant to look as if they are helping Saudi Arabia without helping them, letting the National Guard do all the work.

Fleury, who wears a fishing hat when in the sun, making it look cool, needles Al Ghazi until he is on his side, fighting for him. For Fleury, this fight is personal. One of the FBI’s favorite agent died in the attack.

He’s hardly all bluster and cool. Allowed to question witnesses, he finds a man whose wife was gunned down. He found his children trying to tape her jaw back together. That’s not an image you want to invoke in your witnesses. Fleury has to let to moment go when the dad starts questioning whose children Allah respects more, his, or Saudi?

Not allowed to leave the American compound, Fleury fights this on day one, asking to go to the building where the attack was filmed. Al Ghazi grants him permission to ask for permission, which he gets.

Later, when they reach said building, a bunch of National Guard thugs block their entrance and shove Al Ghazi. Fleury takes this as a personal attack, and decks an officer with maybe 80 pounds on him.

At a dinner with the Saudi prince who allowed the FBI into the kingdom, Fleury pleas with the prince to let him investigate the bombing, to catch the assholes who killed Saudis and Americans.

In the final firefight, Fleury proves his mettle on the battlefield. He might be a cop, but he’s one not afraid to ruffle the feathers of the top predators. The only feathers Fleury doesn’t ruffle belong to the hunting raptors the prince shows off.

Villain (2/10)

Abu Hamza, a bomb maker of repute, hides in plain sight in a “bad” neighborhood of Riyadh. Abu leads a cell of well organized and well-armed terrorists seeking to purify Saudi Arabia, and eventually all Islamic nations, of the Western scourge, depicted in The Kingdom as softball and boobies.

Abu leads his terrorists with grainy videos and two fingers missing on his right hand. All bomb makers, we are told in the middle of The Kingdomget bitten.

We don’t see or hear much of Abu, because his identity is crucial to the conclusion. Instead, he wears a head scarf and speaks to his family about honor and stuff.

Hamza’s organisation skills are top notch. The hit on the American compound was expertly coordinated, killing hundreds of people, including kids and first responders. His underlings create a tremendous car bomb and nearly kill the FBI agents. He is as skilled an organizer as he is a bomb maker, maybe better. Should have been a Boy Scout or something.

Action/Effects (4/10)

The action in The Kingdom occurs entirely in the climax, covered below. It’s terrific stuff, but there’s not enough of it to make up for its lack in the first two acts.

Thousands of rounds are fired in the final fight, and the RPGs streaking slowly toward our heroes are the objects of nightmares.

Sidekicks (8/8)

Jamie Foxx might be the guy wearing the fishing cap, but it’s Barhom who owns this movie. Playing Saudi state police chief Faris Al Ghazi, Barhom adapts his character to a rapidly changing situation.

Al Ghazi first appears in an interrogation room, watching one of his innocent underlings endure a beating ordered by General Al Abdulmalik of the Saudi National Guard. Al Ghazi doesn’t like it, but he needs some evidence to free his man, which he finds in the form of sweat stains on spare uniforms.

Later, Al Ghazi is dressed down by a Saudi prince who is likely twenty years younger and twenty million times richer than he. The prince orders Al Ghazi to babysit the FBI investigators during their brief time in the kingdom. It’s hard to tell which part of this scenario displeases the greasy haired Al Ghazi more.

When Fleury and company land in Saudi Arabia, they immediately push back against their royal-appointed babysitter. Al Ghazi does not allow them to leave the American compound. He does not allow them to touch evidence. He does not allow them to leave the gym at night, locking them in as they sleep. He takes their weapons and passports on the tarmac.

Slowly, Fleury and Al Ghazi bond over their desire to catch the guys who did this. The FBI agents are in Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing and to avenge their beloved Fran, a fellow agent, one who got Mayes (Jennifer Garner) her start at the agency.

Mad as stinging hornets, the agents act like dicks about it. Only after several blustery exchanges does Fleury figure out that the terrorists killed at least two of Al Ghazi’s men, a fact the policeman tactfully withheld until it was relevant to the case. Fleury offers an apology and softens a bit in his relations with Al Ghazi.

After boxing them in for several scenes, Al Ghazi softens to the Americans and fights for them to investigate. He won’t let them leave the base, but he will let them ask for permission to leave the base. They can’t touch evidence, but they can interview witnesses.

The Kingdom eventually becomes a buddy cop drama. When Al Ghazi and the FBI team drive into the terrorists’ neighborhood, they get into a huge shootout, complete with the requisite scene in which Fleury and Al Ghazi take cover beside each other and ask after the other’s well-being.

Al Ghazi became a cop because he enjoyed the Green Beast, better known as The Hulk. Seems like a lot of crooked lines would connect The Hulk with police work, but Al Ghazi has maintained the green beast’s rage. He wants to kill the men who bombed the base. Catching them won’t do.

Al Ghazi identifies Abu Hamza, and it costs him his life when one of Hamza’a grandkids shoots him in the neck. However, Al Ghazi watches Abu Hamza die. That’s winning.

Janet Mayes is the FBI agent most shaken up with “Uncle” Fran’s death. She cries in the FBI meeting hall, until Fleury whispers some encouraging words that we learn later.

Mayes is the only woman on the team, and she’s not going to have a good time. The State Department wants to cover her “boobies” when she meets the prince. She is offered a screen for privacy in the gym/dorm on the compound.

Mayes is the team’s forensic investigator. She’s allowed to examine the muslim corpses, until she touches one, infuriating a Saudi cop observing the procedure. Was it because she was a woman or because she was not muslim?

Mayes is allowed to cut up the non-muslim, or American, bodies, where she removes the shrapnel blown into them by a bomb. Mayes removes pieces of blue glass that form a large marble, the key piece of evidence later.

Jason Bateman plays another investigator better at wise cracks and offending the locals than investigating. Chris Cooper plays a man at home in muck, be it a fishing hole in Florida or a wet bomb crater in Riyadh. His favorite publication is “Wooden Boat” magazine.

Al Ghazi is the strong link here. He starts by fighting against the American. Then he fights for them, and finally he fight with them. He could have carried the movie.

Henchmen (1/8)

Abu Hamza’s men are actually boys, eager to help the cause of murder and suicide. After the initial attack, we see scenes of other terrorists readying a huge bomb to be buried in the trunk of a Mercedes.

Late in the movie, Al Ghazi’s police raid a small Hamza cell, where they kill four teenage boys and capture a lot of guns. The State Department’s flunky in Riyadh (Jeremy Piven) wants to wear the attack as a badge of honor and send the FBI home. He doesn’t care about the lives at stake, only the tenuous relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, as told to him by his boss, the Secretary of State.

Hamza is practically a ghost in The Kingdomand his underlings are ghostlier. Piven seems to have more lines and screen time than all of them combined.

Stunts (3/6)

The Kingdom saves its fireworks for the last third, and it does not disappoint. Start with the attack on the FBI agents as they drive on a highway in a convoy of black Suburbans.

The car bomb we have seen flashes of for about an hour will be used to kill them, it appears. This Mercedes merges onto the highway just after an overpass. Fleury is the one paying attention, realizing that an attack is about to go down, using perhaps the best foresight and insight in history.

Fleury grabs the wheel of the truck as the Mercedes whips in front of the convoy’s lead truck and explodes both vehicles. There’s a great shot of a truck driving through the red-orange fireball that looks as hot as a lava floe.

Being speeding SUVs, the remaining Suburbans flip more than a dozen times, but their roofs are made, apparently, of space shuttle-grade steel, as they aren’t crushed by the trucks’ weight.

Some terrorists come up and drag Bateman’s character Leavitt from the truck, recalling so many horror scenes in which a monster drags a character into/through a tunnel, and steal him away.

Another car, traveling on the opposite side of the road, opens fire on the FBI agents and their handlers, shooting at them and at civilians between. Fleury, out of the truck and killing terrorists, holds his ground and waits until the car reaches a gap between the civilian cars, when he holds the trigger down to kill the driver.

It’s about to get really real, as the Americans and Al Ghazi drive into the bad part of town.

The stunt team spent months planning the highway chase, including a test in which a Suburban drives behind a moving Mercedes, explodes in the back, flips over the still-moving Mercedes, and lands on its wheels ahead of the Mercedes. That was a terrific sequence overall.

Climax (4/6)

The first hour-plus of The Kingdom functions as a crime investigation plot. The crime occurs; the cops arrive. There’s administrative blowback and constraints the cops must fight. A doctor autopsies victims, and witnesses are questioned. Everything seems wrapped up in a neat little package.

Once the terrorists strike the FBI on that Riyadh highway, all the bells and whistles come out.

Let’s pick up the action from the Stunts section. Leavitt, duct-taped and beaten in a black Suburban, rides among the endless white buildings of Riyadh toward Hamza’s main lair. Following that truck is Al Ghazi, Haytham and the other Americans in a pilfered Land or Range Rover. Also heading to the same spot is the car used to gun down the Americans, in which a man is bleeding to death.

All three cars speed through the city, reaching a bad neighborhood. Mayes spots the Suburban down an alley. She and the other four: Al Ghazi, Haytham, Sykes, and Fleury, armed to the teeth, park in a small square, surrounded by Hamza’s people. Fleury spots the gun car. “We’re in it,” Sykes repeats.

Sykes sees a woman in a burqa shaking her head. Two guys run into the square with rocket-propelled grenades. One fires at them and the RPG hits a building instead, shattering the Rover’s glass. A grenade falls on the car’s roof. Fleury throws it off.

Now a hundred guys open fire from the rooftops and balconies, forcing our heroes from the Rover. Of course these guys can’t hit anything, even sitting ducks like Fleury, still firing from his passenger seat. Meanwhile, Leavitt is about to be beheaded on film.

Everyone abandons the car just before another RPG lights it up. These RPGs were exceptionally filmed. You can tell something was launched from the things; they do not appear to be CGI.

Sykes and Haytham kill some rooftop guys, creating a brief lull. Mayes and Al Ghazi get some kills as Fleury runs a gauntlet. He takes a bad guy’s gun, runs to the top of a building and kills more terrorists. From the roof he spots the blood trail of the driver he shot minutes ago and throws a grenade into a window where it explodes and sets of an RPG that blows out the side of the building. That’s marking up your bingo card right there.

The good guys attack the building. Leavitt kicks at the camera, about all he can do. Inside the apartment building are Mayes, Fleury, and Al Ghazi as Sykes and Haytham guard the front door.

Fleury asks Al Ghazi, “What side do you think Allah’s on?” Al Ghazi answers, “We are about to find out.” These two find the right apartment and charge it, taking it room by room. Al Ghazi empties his automatic rifle and switches to a handgun, always the sign of a true badass gunman.

Perhaps these terrorists can’t shoot because they never had proper training, and because they all shoot the notoriously inaccurate AK-47 rifles. Perhaps both.

As Fleury and Al Ghazi do their thing, Mayes works the hallway, finding an apartment with a family and a young child. She makes the child cry. Mayes making that child cry is the saddest, most barbaric part of the fight.

Leavitt is so close to death, but first, the terrorist directing the murder video HAS TO finish reading his beautiful prose before they can kill the FBI agent infidel dog. Too late, Mayes guns them down. She’s dragged from the hole in the ceiling and slammed on the floor by a huge bad guy she did not shoot and thrown into the wall.

Mayes goes full Gollum, jumping on him and biting whatever’s available–his ear. More wall throwing. Leavitt kicks at the guy. Mayes draws his sidearm and puts three shots into his leg. Still the guy fights like a mama bear on heroin.

Mayes draws a knife and stabs the guy in the balls, leg, twice in the chest, and finally in the brain before he dies. Insane power with that guy and a great boss fight.

Backup arrives. The fight is over. They check on the only civilian family on the floor, the one with the crying girl. Mayes, a sucker for suckers and other lollipops, busts out the top level diplomatic weapon, a Tootsie Pop, and cherry at that. Big time sucker flavor; impossible to deny. The girl offers an item in return, a big blue marble.

OH SHIT. Mayes gulps, knowing what this means. Al Ghazi smirks a bit, knowing the same. He looks at the oldest man in the room, reclining on his elbows, and asks to see his concealed right hand. Fleury’s confused, until he sees the blood trail.

Abu Hamza shows his right hand and its two missing fingers. One of his dumb grandkids comes out of a room with a gun and shoots Al Ghazi twice in the neck. Fleury guns him down. “FUCK,” he shouts, hating to kill a child, but with no choice, because Mayes was next in the kid’s sights.

Hamza reveals a gun. Haytham shoots him. Three of the four the Saudi males in the room are dying. Women plea for mercy and an end to the shooting. Fleury helps Al Ghazi, but he won’t make it. He lives long enough to see Hamza die after he whispers something to his young granddaughter.

Back in America, we finally learn what Fleury said to Mayes on the day after the initial attack to get her to stop crying. Turns out it was close to what Hamza said to his granddaughter. “We are going to kill them all.”

That was a boss ending with terrific gun fighting. The mirroring of quotes gave me the chills in its cynicism, contrasting humorously with the Friday Night Lights “life goes on” music style.

Jokes (1/4)

Jason Bateman exists in The Kingdom to provide comic relief, and he does a good job with what he’s given. Wearing a Pixies shirt to a crime scene, Bateman’s character, Adam Leavitt, isn’t excited to visit the Kingdom, but he’s got no choice.

Excessive car speed unnerves Leavitt, and his jokes unnerve Al Ghazi. He drops the f-word plenty of times, and he uses latex gloves to make a butt exam joke to a Saudi soldier.

Bateman owns the smarm market enough that I wasn’t upset when the terrorists dragged him from a Suburban, duct-taped his mouth, and nearly beheaded him on camera. I thought, “Yeah, seems like they got the right guy to behead.”

Leavitt had the movie’s best joke. He and Sykes discuss the greatness of Pabst Blue Ribbon to a skeptical Mayes. Leavitt says, “You think they just hand that blue ribbon out?”

Bateman’s and Piven’s presences earn The Kingdom one point.

Setting (1/4)

The Kingdom is Saudi Arabia, a land of sand and oil beneath that sand. You won’t see a grain of Saudi sand in this film. Most of the scenes were filmed in Arizona and Abu Dhabi, where gleaming skyscrapers act like Las Vegas doesn’t exist.

The Kingdom believes that two cultures as different as America and Saudi Arabia cannot exist side-by-side, and the sets back up this claim. What could be a stranger sight than watching black and white Americans play softball and grill hot dogs on a field surrounded by blazing hot sand, Saudi guards, and burqa-wrapped women?

Not much. That softball scene opens the movie, and it is very weird. Imagine Indian cricket batsman playing a test match on Fort Bragg. Not a sight you expect to see any other time in life.

The Kingdom spends some time in (fake) Riyadh. Four black Suburbans speed through the city, emergency lights flashing. The buildings were in Abu Dhabi, but that’s no matter. Both cities are gigantic.

Overhead shots capture the city in grand scale. Beautiful white apartment buildings cover several blocks. The prince’s palace is as grand as any Mughal’s or Caesar’s ever was.

Commentary (1/2)

The Kingdom probes American-Saudi relations at the highest and most sensitive levels. Members of the Saudi state police betray their country to murder Americans working for oil companies.

A powerful Saudi prince oversees the investigation. The FBI and Attorney General are directly involved. Important stuff.

Both governments have internal strife. Al Ghazi and his state police are at odds with the National Guard from their first moments on screen. The general running the Guard believes the terrorists got their info from Al Ghazi’s state police, while Al Ghazi believes the opposite.

On the American side, Jeremy Piven’s character shows up a few times trying to get the FBI team to leave. It’s State vs. Homeland, and Jeremy Piven could never talk Jamie Foxx into doing anything. Late in the film, the Attorney General threatens to get the FBI director fired.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

The Kingdom takes the tiniest baby step toward not painting the entire Arabic-speaking world as terrorist and terrorist-adjacent people, all eager for Death to America. The movie does that by making ONE guy a hero. And he dies.

Like I said, tiniest baby step.

Others

  • The gym on the American compound belongs to the Al Rahmah Eagles. I can’t imagine there’s an Amero-Saudi basketball league with teams for the Eagles to play.
  • One of the few movies in which characters play Scrabble.
  • The funniest part of the final gun battle: a random civilian starts up his car to make a 7-11 run or something and Sykes shoots out his tires. The driver comes out with hands up. Just wait out the fight you crazy man.

Summary (30/68): 44%

Peter Berg describes the first two thirds of The Kingdom as drawing back a large bow, and in the last third they shoot that arrow. Most movies could be described that way, ratcheting up tension like a bow, but this time it feels true.

The Kingdom begins with a bombing, but until the next bomb goes off on the freeway, there’s nothing to make us suspect we’ll see the huge gunfight we see in the climax. What starts as a murder investigation ends as a gun battle that would make Rambo or the Terminator smile.

Barhom’s Al Ghazi also sets apart The Kingdom. His change from babysitter to sidekick to hero makes this as much his story as any American’s. Several scenes center on his relationships with his family and his reasons for becoming the cop, a side American audiences almost never see in Hollywood movies involving the Middle East or, hell, any foreign culture. (Remember, the Brits make James Bond movies.)