Despite initial pretenses towards topicality, the basic story mechanics of The Kingdom — an elite FBI team hunts terrorists in Saudi Arabia following a brutal attack on an American compound — could’ve been jiggered together pretty much any time since the first Gulf War. The team, exceptionally well-cast in that Jerry Bruckheimer sort of way, is played by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. As in Bruckheimer’s films, the familiar faces mostly provide comfort; each lead gets a distinctive scene or two, enough to gain trust that, time permitting, they’d give fuller performances. The happy exception is Bateman, a dry wiseass in a Pixies t-shirt.
The supporting cast fares worse because, like the film’s good guys, dealing with bureaucracy is not The Kingdom’s strong suit. When Foxx and company wriggle around regulations in order to make their trip (the Saudis resist American interference; the Americans want to get in before the trail goes cold), the behind-the-scenes jockeying is as cheesy and tedious as any rogue-cop picture.
Once the film knuckles down for inconsequential thrills, director Peter Berg’s craft emerges: we get some procedural investigation with bonus language and cultural barriers, dashes of clever banter, and a shamelessly tension-packed sequence of attack, chase, rescue, and shoot-out (not necessarily in that order or quantity) that lasts a good half-hour, all going down like a decent Tom Clancy picture. Some will be troubled by the film’s muddled politics, but that lack of clarity — at one point, Berg seems to decide against all evidence that he’s made a movie about the emptiness of vengeance — neutralizes offense. One critic’s oversimplified drama is another’s thriller with a touch of class.