The filmmakers and ad campaigns would love for you to believe that The Kingdom is a timely, action-packed political thriller—The Bourne Ultimatum crossed with Syriana. Unfortunately, the politics are somewhat incidental to the story, and there are but two action scenes to speak of. Still, you could do much worse than this as far as timely action-dramas go.

This fictional story, inspired by the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack, begins with an incident that feels lifted straight from the headlines. It's a bright summer day as American oil company employees and their families enjoy a neighborhood picnic and baseball game at their home compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A picturesque, almost suburban setting, until the unthinkable happens: terrorists infiltrate the compound with an SUV and machine guns, mowing down innocents left and right. Later, a bomb explodes in the aftermath, killing hundreds and wounding hundreds more.

How should America respond? Higher-ups like Attorney General Gideon Young (Danny Huston) want to handle the delicate situation with diplomacy, respecting the wishes of the Saudi Prince to let Arabia take charge. The FBI is far less passive, especially when one of its own is killed in the blast. After some covert negotiations, a special evidence response team is assembled, led by Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), with permission to investigate Riyadh for five days and root out the terrorist threat while the trail is still hot.

Jamie Foxx as FBI team leader Ronald Fleury

Jamie Foxx as FBI team leader Ronald Fleury

Of course it's never simple when culture clashes are involved, especially in the world's powder keg. The team is initially hampered by protocol, allowed only to observe with a Saudi police escort, and restricted to makeshift accommodations in a gymnasium. But the investigation eventually expands, while Fleury finds a kindred spirit in Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom of Paradise Now)—two men committed to bringing evil to justice and making the world a little safer for their families.

This is the fourth film for director Peter Beg (Friday Night Lights), who again brings kinetic action to his visual style. The camera work has a slightly washed out and shaky hand-held feel—similar to but not quite as refined as Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93). The idea is to create a documentary feel, placing viewers in the middle of the action.

The Kingdom is not the special ops intrigue that you would expect from, say, a movie based on a Tom Clancy novel. It's less about political intrigue and military action than it is a crime drama procedural—essentially a buddy cop film that just happens to be set in Saudi Arabia. The film often resembles Michael Mann's work (Heat, Miami Vice), and indeed, he's one of the producers.

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Jennifer Garner as forensics examiner Janet Mayes

Jennifer Garner as forensics examiner Janet Mayes

A crime drama in Arabia is fine, but considering the talent involved, we'd hope for better than buddy cop film clichés. Fleury and Al Ghazi are the classic odd couple cop pairing, struggling over their cultural differences at first but learning mutual respect, especially after the classic stakeout conversation in the car ("So, why did you become a cop?"). Though timely and meaningful, the relationship between American and Arab enforcers feels no different than those shared by black and white (Lethal Weapon), Russian and American (Red Heat), or human and alien (Alien Nation).

It doesn't help that the characters are action movie archetypes so thinly developed that they would border on parody in most movies. But with two Oscar winners, two Golden Globe winners, and an Emmy winner in the roles, they bring enough acting experience to their parts to make them instantly recognizable.

Foxx is the best as the go-getter leader—the type that's hot headed enough to bend the rules, yet sensitive enough to give a sweet little monologue about his precious little boy's birth. Jennifer Garner is part Sydney Bristow (Alias ), part Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs) as tough-but-emotional forensics expert Janet Mayes. Chris Cooper is explosives expert Grant Sykes, the likeably gruff veteran. And Jason Bateman is … well, they say he's the intelligence analyst, but all we really see is whiny comedic relief. There's also the bureaucrat holding the team back, but instead of the angry police chief ("You're off the force!"), we have diplomat Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven) and the slimy Attorney General.

Jason Bateman as FBI intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt

Jason Bateman as FBI intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt

The movie sputters when the team has their hands tied (figuratively), but comes alive once they're granted free reign to do their job. However, the reason they're granted permission is so sudden, it feels like a cheat—the same kind you'd find in a cheesy buddy cop film. Plus it makes the Arabs seem downright incompetent when it comes to things like autopsies and investigating a crime scene. Yet for all the team's special analytical skills, they ultimately seem to stumble across the culprits rather than work magic through intricate crime solving.

That's not to say The Kingdom doesn't have its moments. Other than the tragic opening sequence, the other primary action scene is a fast and furious 20-minute finale—impressive and intense, especially in light of terrorist atrocities committed to Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl. But there's also something cathartic about ditching all the moralizing and hand wringing, and instead watching the good guys take action against the bad guys. The Kingdom has reportedly tested strongly with both American and international audiences, including Muslims. The struggle between good and evil transcends cultural boundaries.

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Moreover, this film's greatest strength is the way it touches on everyday life in Arabia. Relations between Arabs and Americans became strained when it was revealed most of the 9/11 plane hijackers were from Arabia; the Saudi government was quick to condemn the terrorist activity. Obviously, not all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists intent on jihad and killing Americans, yet some still people believe the opposite to be true—just as some Muslims believe all Americans and Christians are their enemy. The Kingdom makes great effort to show that the Arabic people are as diverse as we are: that some are extreme in their use of violence, while others are just as zealous in stamping out violence from their midst. The everyday Arab is depicted as kind-hearted, deeply religious, with strong love for their families and friends.

Fleury finds a kindred spirit in Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom)

Fleury finds a kindred spirit in Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom)

If only The Kingdom kept its focus without trying to be all things. The opening credits offer a crash course history of Saudi Arabia (found also at the movie's official site). Though interesting, it's almost completely unnecessary to the movie that follows. We learn that oil is the country's most precious resource, and that terrorism has been on the rise over the last thirty years—do tell!

Once the team arrives in Arabia, despite their knowledge of the region and the handshake agreement that got them there, it's as if the members are surprised that they're not welcomed with open arms or granted full access. Mayes seems to have the strongest handle on Middle East culture, yet she's somewhat incredulous when required to throw a robe over her tight T-shirt when the Prince visits their investigation. You can't help but wonder if these four are the best qualified for the mission—or if they're involved because it's personal.

The movie tries to have it both ways with the violence too. Most of the film has us rooting for retribution and justice, but later—through one of the most chilling final lines of dialogue in movie history—The Kingdom would have us reconsider the whole movie and ask whether our FBI heroes are right in their actions. Moralizing is fine, but not after leading us along. You can't relish the action one minute and get audiences cheering, only to shame them for it moments later.

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All of which makes The Kingdom sometimes fun, sometimes powerful, but ultimately flawed. It promises action, but only delivers a little, decrying it while delighting in it. And it promises thoughtful perspectives on the Middle East climate, but really doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. At least one point comes through loud and clear: a kingdom divided cannot stand.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why do you think the movie includes the scenes involving Fleury talking with his son and his friend's son? What do you think the movie is saying about father-son relationships? Is there a message about what we teach our children about love and hatred?
  2. Do you believe the FBI acted within its jurisdiction to send a special team to Saudi Arabia? Was it a mission of justice or retribution? What does the Bible say about submitting to authority? About justice? Where do we draw the line between taking action ourselves and leaving it to God?
  3. A distraught father mourns the death of his wife and asks, "Does Allah love your family more than mine?" How would you respond? Suppose someone asks if God loves you more than a Muslim; how would you respond?
  4. Do you feel the movie accurately portrays Arab life? What hopes do you see for peace and reconciliation between the cultures? In what ways will we differ the most? What role does the struggle between tradition and modernity play in all this?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Kingdom is rated R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence and language. The violence mostly consists of shootings, including a horrific assault on a suburban-like American community at the film's start. And the bloodiness is only magnified because of the white robes that most people wear in the movie. There's also an intense sequence where someone is threatened with beheading, and a particularly nasty stabbing during a hand-to-hand fight. But it's all quickly cut together with shaky camera work, so it rarely lingers on an image long enough to be graphic. Profanity is frequent, including use of the f-bomb and irreverent use of God's name.

What other Christian critics are saying:

The Kingdom
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and language)
Directed By
Peter Berg
Run Time
1 hour 50 minutes
Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner
Theatre Release
September 28, 2007 by Universal Pictures
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