The devil is in the details. “The Kingdom” weaves a tantalizing web that is slowly and teasingly unraveled by the discovery of seemingly minute and meaningless details, and its mystery is ultimately solved because of two small observations.
This meticulous attention to detail is evident in the opening sequence, a succinct three-minute timeline of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States. Set against a computerized desert background, news footage, voiceovers and a pulsating Danny Elfman score, more than 75 years of history is reviewed to present the film’s context. Never before has a Middle Eastern history lesson been so engrossing.
Starting with this historical crash course, “The Kingdom” is a tangled tale of religion, murder and cultural conflicts as explosive and attention-stealing as the Mercedes-Benz cars packed with improvised explosives. Set in an American oil-based community in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the story begins with a softball game interrupted by suicide bombers and gunfire and the investigation of that horrific event delayed by an even more destructive car bomb.
Faced with the death of colleague Francis Manner (Kyle Chandler), an investigative FBI team of five, including Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) and Saudi Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), must find the culprit in only five days.
This hunt is made even more complicated when Saudi authorities decide the investigation is a local matter and should be dealt with by their authorities. Uncooperative locals (look for a cameo by country singer Tim McGraw) also complicate matters, whether they refuse to cooperate with the investigation or target the team.
Director Peter Berg, best known for directing “Friday Night Lights,” uses fast-action, guerilla-style camera work to match the frenetic pace of the story. The result is a hit-and-run tempo with grenade and gunshot crescendos to match the war-torn setting.
Despite all the violence, the film maintains its compassion, and the characters are all relatable. Between scenes of gunfights and car bombs lie scenes of a father helping his son with his homework, a family praying together and colleagues Al Ghazi and Fleury talking in their car. The talented cast only enhances these moments.
Foxx steps it up as the film’s lead actor, using his Oscar-winning talent to be both a loving father to his young son and a serious FBI agent. He also makes a wonderful comforter for Garner. Using the combat and gun skills she honed while filming “Alias,” Garner comes out strong as a lollipop-loving, foul-mouthed forensic investigator. She also remains vulnerable, seen in a few emotionally trying scenes.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the film is the comic relief from Bateman, as he challenges a word Garner puts on the Scrabble board on the way over to Riyadh. He’s later shown lying on his cot in the gym where the FBI investigators are staying, reading “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Koran.”
One befuddling choice by writer Matthew Michael Carnahan is to have the team go to Saudi Arabia with no Arabic language skills to speak of, save for Colonel Al Ghazi. Also questionable is the inclusion of Jeremy Piven’s character, Damon Schmidt. Though funny, the character serves almost no purpose, appearing only to question if the team would like to cut and run.
Despite these hiccups, the film manages to successfully explore diplomatic tensions, revealing that, in the end, attention to details is crucial and perhaps more importantly, people will fight for what they think is right.
“The Kingdom” was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and directed by Peter Berg.
It received three and a half out of four stars.