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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Kingdom

You know, the best part about war movies back in the 1940s and ‘50s (besides being in glorious black and white) is that you never actually saw any blood, guts, or carnage, and nobody ever swore or was disrespectful outside of the usual racist sniping that was not yet labeled as “un-p.c.” by polite society. Even those snide derogatives seem tame by today’s standards of insulting pejoratives. You could also count on knowing who the real heroes were and you could tell the women from the men. No one ever mistook Maureen O’Hara for John Wayne either in dress, swagger, or language.

We should be so lucky today. Apparently in today’s Army, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” means a whole lot more than whether you like playing chutes and ladders in the bedroom with your favorite Idaho Senator. It also means we accept the fact that soldiers are all alike: they dress alike, swear alike, kill alike, and think alike ~ basically they are khaki copies of one another and they bleed red, white, and blue, but, hopefully, they don’t bleed at all. That seems to be the premise within former actor turned director Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights) latest film, The Kingdom, which is currently playing at the Essex Cinemas.

In The Kingdom, a bunch a squeaky clean (i.e. white) Americans who look like refugees from an Up With People reunion tour are playing softball in a protected military housing compound near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when they are attacked by terrorists disguised as the police. Before the real police can respond, however, a huge bomb detonates and those who weren’t struck down by machine gun fire in the initial onslaught are blown to bits in what one police officer later describes as a disaster that will require “months to pick up the pieces.” Eww. And this is only the beginning of the movie.

Back in Washington DC, politicians are negotiating all sorts of useless crap, the stuff that politicians do best, while FBI Director James Grace (Richard Jenkins; tv’s “Six Feet Under”) even goes so far as to personally order his best agents not to take any retaliatory measures, knowing full well that since one of their own elite squad, Francis Manner (Kyle Chandler; tv’s "Friday Night Lights"), was killed in the attack the chances of them following that directive is slimmer than Nicole Ritchie after a ten day fast.

You can guess where the movie is going next. Yep. Quicker than you can say “Osama Bin Laden” FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx; Dreamgirls) has pulled together his best team of agents and arranged for a secret five day trip to Saudi to investigate the bombing. You can probably also imagine how well they are welcomed by the locals. Actually, you don’t have to. That’s pretty much the gist of what the entire story is about ~ how the American soldiers/agents fight upstream against the prejudice, suspicions, and deep-set convictions of the Saudi authorities and the people on the streets to solve the crime even when it seems like they are trying to impede the investigation more than assist with it.

The police inspector in charge of the official investigation, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom; Paradise Now), is looked on with distrust by his commander since Faris was not hurt yet several of his own men were killed in the assault. He is also of questionable character in the eyes of the Americans for the same reasons, even more so since the terrorists were wearing uniforms stolen from Al Ghazi’s locker. You pretty much know that he is going to have to do something remarkably noble before the movie is over if he is going to redeem himself; either that or he is going to be the way-too-obvious bad guy behind the crime, and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper (Breach) wouldn’t settle for something that cheesy.

Cooper plays Grant Sykes, who along with Jennifer Garner (Catch and Release) and Jason Bateman (Smokin’ Aces) make up the rest of this select squad. Unfortunately, Cooper is given virtually nothing to do except follow orders from Foxx and appear grizzled, a look that comes natural to him. Garner, as Janet Mayes, no doubt signed on to have her day in the sun playing soldier, but she also gave up any traces of her femininity to do so. Fans looking to see an Elektra-era Garner are going to find it hard to recognize her. She comes off looking more like hubby Ben Affleck than herself under a bullet-proof vest and coating of Arab dust. Coming out best of the three is Jason Bateman as Adam Leavitt. Bateman, best known for years of comedy on the small screen, at first plays his role in the background, but by the last quarter of the film his character experiences something so extremely frightening and overwhelmingly realistic that I can’t imagine anyone in the audience not being on the edge of their seat with nervous excitement. Bateman pulls out all the stops and his terror seems as flawlessly genuine as if the events unfolding on-screen were actually happening. Now that’s acting!

On Thursday I was driving with the car radio on and heard one of the talking heads saying he wouldn’t be seeing
The Kingdom because he knew it would be a “Leftie liberal bleeding heart look at the war and would be all about brainwashing people into supporting the Dems.” Once I realized Fox had a radio network and changed from it I wondered how someone could be so dimwitted as to make up their mind about a movie before they’d even seen it. After a few more seconds I remembered that it was Rush Limbaugh’s voice on the radio and everything suddenly made sense. He obviously needed another couple of his illegal tranquilizers to focus better. Heck, with those, he’d probably love The Kingdom. I think you will too, even without the drugs. Granted, Jamie Foxx is no John Wayne and Jennifer Garner is no Maureen O’Hara, but that may not be as important as bringing us the truth in a war we aren’t going to see on the tv news. The Kingdom may not be based on a real event, but it is more real than we’d like to imagine.

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