Don't be suckered into thinking The Kingdom is a movie with something pertinent to say about the war on terror or America's role in the Middle East. Better to go in expecting a double episode of CSI: Riyadh, an imaginary cop show that uses explosive action sequences to distract you from how easily the crime is solved.
The movie has its boots pressed down firmly on the necks of viewers. With the oxygen to your brain cut off, you might take it seriously as a geopolitical tract for the first two minutes -- during a title sequence purporting to summarize America's history in the region.
Equally glib and gung-ho, it begins with gunmen disguised as police attacking Yankee civilians and their families while they're playing softball on a private compound in the Saudi Arabian capital. The victims are in the employ of U.S. oil companies and during the emergency response, a huge explosion takes the life of a beloved F.B.I. agent (Kyle Chandler), among scores of others.
Back in D.C., a team of F.B.I. agents specializing in crime-scene investigation are determined to get onto Saudi soil and work their magic, despite knowing there's little chance the Saudis and their own government will allow it. But after a threatening chat with a Saudi envoy, persuasive Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) gets permission for a five-day visit.
He's accompanied by one good old boy (Chris Cooper), one puffy-lipped forensic specialist (Jennifer Garner), and one wisecracking agent whose area of expertise is comic relief (Justin Bateman). An upstanding Saudi police colonel (Ashraf Barhom) serves as their liaison and the party is soon targeted by the terrorists.
The only thing more ludicrous than the ease with which the heroes track down the fundamentalist perps is the movie's shaky camera work and jerky editing, especially during the violent climactic battle in a Riyadh neighborhood. If anyone chose to take it seriously, the final fifteen minutes could decimate Arab-American relations for decades.
The mayhem is matched by flip efforts to make it seem as though issues are being tackled -- the history of oil-soaked collusion between America and the Saudi Royal family, the craven behavior of fundamentalist warriors (they hide behind women and children!), and ultimately, the idea that we're all the same when you dig beneath the surface.
The Kingdom is ugly not because it's jingoistic or anti-Islam, but because it fiddles with those buttons so shamelessly. Director Peter Berg made Friday Night Lights, one of the better movies ever filmed about high school sports. Based on a fine book, that genre picture had something to show us about the role of football in Texas life. This effort is all about adrenaline and testosterone, chemicals that athletes, soldiers, cops and filmmakers apparently rely on more than the rest of us.
Along with sometime actor Berg, Foxx, Gardner, and Bateman have deep roots in television, which they shouldn't be ashamed of or disavow. Nevertheless, when Jeremy Piven (Ari from Entourage) turns up in the desert playing a fast-talking U.S. diplomat, a line has been crossed. That line demarcates cheap from earned points, and it's crossed numerous times no matter if the movie is in action, history, or laugh mode.
Fleury's quip, "America's not perfect, but we're pretty good at this" refers to crime solving yet could be about how we dash off superficial, exploitative movies. This one almost has you rooting for the terrorists and it fosters appreciation for the mercenaries and private contractors who tangle with baddies abroad for profit.
After watching The Kingdom, I'd prefer it if people motivated solely by money drew our lines in the sand, as opposed to F.B.I. agents with a personal grudge or Hollywood filmmakers clutching a script camouflaged as a foreign policy paper.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence and language.)