Sunday, September 30, 2007

REVIEW: The Kingdom (2007)

Here's the basic problems facing you if you're trying to make military-related action films in Hollywood. Firstly, the old wars are getting played out. Now that the post-Russert "You rule, grammy and grampy!" resurgence of WWII films is starting to crest, The Great War will have been revisited in every concievable way for awhile now. WWI isn't fast-paced enough, and even our SMART youngsters have trouble telling you what it was about. Ditto the Veitnam genre. The Civil War hasn't made for a great film in years (no, Ron Maxwell's crap doesn't count) and the Revolutionary War... well, "The Patriot" for better or worse is kinda hard to top.

Secondly, doing it "current" means engaging the thus-far rather uncinematic War on Terror. Seriously, all political thorniness aside, the current war as film fodder is problematic: "Us" the high-tech war machine as good guys versus gruff, cave-dwelling improvisors as the bad guys cuts hard against the good-guy/bad-guy grain of the last decade or so of action movies: WE'RE supposed to be John Rambo, making an arsenal out of sticks and mud while the bad guys are supposed to be all slick and heavily-armed. Nevermind the fact that too much of our polarized country is going to either see or demand to see any War on Terror film as some kind of referendum one way or the other on Iraq and the Bushies - no genuinely good movie will ever be anti-war enough for "liberals" or "pro-American" enough for "conservatives."

How, then, one makes a good War on Terror action film is a puzzle that "The Kingdom" sets out to solve and - surprise, surprise - it mostly succeeds. The key, it seems, is in taking a two-directional long view of the situation: Bush, Iraq and Red vs. Blue states loom large right now; but Islamic Fundamentalist terrorism and the world issues it drives/ties-into has been around and will continue to be around longer. It's this bigger picture (driven-home by a stunning pre-credit sequence encapsulating American/Saudi relations from the discovery of oil to 9-11 in bullet-point format) that drives the events of the story, and enables it to sidestep the murky territory of messages and moral lessons in favor of mining the circumstances for drama and suspense. As a result, we have the first really solid American "War on Terrorism" movie that won't feel dated once Iraq has (one way or another) concluded.

In many ways, the film plays out as though "CSI: Miami" and "24" had baby - and then sent it to Finishing School to curb it of (most) of it's baser instincts. It's a fish-out-of-water cop story with an international scope and a Secular West meets Islamic Middle-East hook, with a tight focus on what the culture-clash in question results-in as opposed to what it "means" or how it makes one "feel." A horrifically cruel series of terrorist attacks on the living-areas of American oil workers and their families in Saudi Arabia raises the ire of an FBI forensics team (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper) when a mutual friend turns up among the victims. Despite stonewalling by superiors, they semi-legally slip into The Kingdom with a small window of time to try and get some answers and possibly seek out Abu-Hamza, the terror kingpin believed to have planned the attacks.

That's all easier said than done, of course, or there'd be no movie: As if the expected troubles of trying to process evidence under the auspices of the strict social and religious customs of the society (Garner's female-hood invites glares, Bateman's passport has an Israeli stamp, and how DO you perform an autopsy when a non-believer can't touch the body of a dead Muslim?) aren't enough, the investigation as a whole is initially hamstrung by the tricky political navigations the Saudi princes have to make in regards to their volatile citizenry. Luckily, the Americans have a sympathetic ally in Colonel Al-Ghazi, (Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom,) a tough and highly-intelligent Saudi police officer who wants to ice Abu-Hamza AND strains against the forces preventing him from doing so every bit as much as the Americans.

All the more impressive since he's working amid such a talented overall cast, let me echo the sentiments of just about everyone who's been to see this so far and state that Barhom just about walks off with the entire movie - he's a STAR. Equal parts calm, collected detective; reluctant-but-efficient beaurocrat and gunslinging action hero, Al Ghazi may just be the first great, fully-realized, three-dimensional Muslim good guy character of post-911 Hollywood. This is no ethnic sidekick, nor is he a politically correct "wise foreign sage" cliche. He's essentially the moral center of the movie: The guy who not only aims to do the right thing, but also to do it the right way.

The refreshing no demonizing, no-idealizing, no-bullshit-PERIOD take extends to the film's overall approach to it's setting and it's indiginous culture: The 'differences' of Saudi Arabia are played, certainly, for exotica but not so much for outright shock or message-mongering. The callous scrutiny and sexism of the culture toward Garner's character is noted, depicted and (by Al Ghazi) lamented... but there's no showy speech about how wrong it is or about how we need to "respect other cultures" instead - it's there, she dislikes it, most of the audience will agree, but it's just an element of the plot. The film is more concerned with how this issue will impact the investigation than it is with the larger religious/political questions it raises. I still can't get over how pleasant it actually is to go see a terrorism movie that ISN'T just a longform essay on either the evils of Islam OR a conspiracy-piece about Big Oil and Halliburton.

Great cast playing great characters, interesting story in a fascinating setting, killer opening, smooth police-procedural second act, visceral action climax and a devastating final coda - this is one of the best action/dramas of the year. Yeah, if your a "conservative" hoping to see a kill-em-all campaign-commercial about the need to stay in Iraq OR if your a "liberal" hoping to see the evil imperialist/capitalist white-male-power-structure Americans 'get it;' you're probably not going to like it. But, then again, if you're THAT kinda crazy on either side, you're probably a pretty miserable person to begin with. Those of you with clear heads regardless of party affiliation who're aching for a DAMN GOOD actioner with brains to match? Get out there and see this.

FINAL RATING: 9/10