'The Kingdom': A royal foul-up

The agents endure frustration after frustation, and so does the audience. The most fun you'll get is watching Israeli actors in a big-budget movie.

THE KINGDOM H Directed by Peter Berg. 110 minutes. In English and Arabic, with Hebrew titles. Starring Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner Islamic terror has become Hollywood's newest MacGuffin. What's a MacGuffin? That was Alfred Hitchcock's word for the thing in a movie that everyone is after. Said Hitchcock, "It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories, it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is almost always the papers." The point is, it can be anything. During the Cold War, movie MacGuffins often had to do with Soviet spies or USSR-controlled weapons systems. Today, as the film The Kingdom makes clear, the MacGuffin can be an Islamic terrorist. But whatever it is, the search for it allows the heroes to sweat, run, shoot, blow up cars and generally do what good guys fighting bad guys do. In the hands of a master like Alfred Hitchcock, the search for the MacGuffin could be great drama. But for an average filmmaker, it's just a lot of mindless action. That's certainly the case with The Kingdom. While ostensibly about four FBI special agents on a mission to avenge a terror attack against Americans (including several of their own) in Saudi Arabia (the kingdom of the title) by Islamic extremists, there is no serious commentary anywhere in the film. Instead, it aims for heart-tugging and predictable solutions as these brave, maverick agents head off to Saudi Arabia with dreams of avenging the massacre and hopes of at least investigating it. They are led by the charismatic Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), who is introduced while making a presentation at his adorable young son's school. In a dull performance, the usually magnetic Foxx keeps his face blank and his eyes wide open to broadcast goodness. When the by-the-book Washington bureaucrats won't give Fleury permission to send a force, he calls in a favor and arranges to do it on the sly. He then recruits a hand-picked group of top agents: Janet (Jennifer Garner), who loved one of the agents killed and is apparently a martial arts expert and a forensic pathologist; Grant (Chris Cooper), the tech guy, an expert on bombs and evidence gathering; and Adam (Jason Bateman), a wisecracking guy who gets the supposedly funny lines. For some reason, these seasoned FBI agents aren't prepared for the fact that the Saudis don't welcome them with open arms, and in fact try to block them at every turn. More shocks are in store when Saudis condescend Garner, saying they tried to get a pink screen to separate her from her male colleagues in the gym where they are housed. The agents endure frustration after frustation (and so will any audience members who crave action) in the early part of the film, but the turning point comes when Fleury wins over Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), the Saudi police official assigned to be their handler. Faris is in a complicated position vis-a-vis his Saudi colleagues, because the terrorists wore police uniforms and the higher-ups, including a prince who oozes insincerity, suspect that some of his men are involved. Faris sticks his neck out to protect one of them, Sergeant Haytham (Ali Suliman), and interferes when Haytham is tortured during an interrogation. Faris is a good man and wants to see those responsible for the killings brought to justice. Once he and Fleury are on the same page, they have one of those mawkish, male-bonding conversations that the hard-boiled American cop used to have with his Russian or Asian counterpart in Hollywood movies. The agents make progress when they get crucial information from a retired terrorist played with quiet menace by Uri Gavriel. The dialogue in this scene is filled with portentous bon mots such as "You stop only when the dead faces don't let you sleep." The Gavriel character gives them the clue that leads them to the hiding place of the elusive "Osama wannabe" known as Abu Hamza, where they get into the inevitable shoot-out. The moviemakers try hard to show the evil face of murderous extremism while presenting a balanced portrait of principled Muslims such as Faris. Faris is shown praying with his family - a ritual filled with smiles and featuring equal participation by women. While some criticized the film for portraying Arabs negatively, it bends over backwards to show that many are peaceful. However, it certainly doesn't shy away from portraying terrorist brutality, and also shows how they involve children in their activities. But there's nothing here that you haven't seen in dozens of other movies. Even an appearance by Jeremy Piven (Ari on the HBO series Entourage) can't do much to break the monotony. He does deliver the closest thing to a funny line in the movie, asking Garner, "Can we dial down the boobies?" - i.e., drape a blanket over her chest when the prince is visiting the crime scene. The most fun you'll have is watching Israeli actors in a big-budget movie. Ashraf Barhom, who has had key supporting roles in Paradise Now, Colombian Love and The Syrian Bride, exudes star quality as Faris, as he always does on screen. Ali Suliman, who played one of the suicide bombers in Paradise Now, is convincing as the wrongly accused policeman. Uri Gavriel, the heavy in dozens of Israeli films (including Stones and What a Wonderful Place), displays his mastery of Arabic in his one scene. In a tacked-on ending, there's a plea for non-violence on both sides, but the entire movie exists to show its stars kicking butt and killing bad guys. In a peaceful world, no one would see movies like this, so the filmmakers probably don't want to see this prayer answered.