The editors of movie trailers are a curious lot.
They can pull off some real artistry, like when they make "I Know Who Killed Me" look in any way coherent, or when they cut two different trailers for "Good Luck Chuck," one to appeal to women (Jessica Alba's cute but clumsy, and isn't their relationship sweet), and another to appeal to men (Dane Cook scores like Pele).
That takes some skills. Not just bill-paying skills, but outlandish luxury-buying skills. Like jetpacks-for-your-cats-buying skills. Yet they drop the ball sometimes with a serious vengeance. To me, the trailers made "The Kingdom" look like a plain-ass action movie, and worse, one of those got-nothin' films that might be under the delusion it's somehow important because it's set in the Middle East. Yeah. It's one of the best movies of the year.
It opens with a long timeline of American involvement in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- one of director Peter Berg's many curious but distinctive touches -- then jumps to a terror attack on Saudi soil. During the aftermath and emergency response, a bomb goes off, killing scores, one of whom's an FBI agent.
Stateside, agent Jamie Foxx wants to get a team on the ground and find out who's responsible for the death of their man, but is stymied by Saudi reluctance for Americans to be seen operating within their country. After lots of political wrangling that's livened up by killer dialogue, Foxx and his team (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) are allowed to fly into Riyadh.
The situation there's no better. The Saudi detective process is rudimentary, unlikely to produce results, and the team's restricted to little more than spectators babysat by Ashraf Barhom, one of the few local investigators capable of getting it done. Time's ticking away. Every minute the team is restricted from digging into the crime, its window of opportunity to catch the killers closes a little further.
For all the politics and maneuvering, "The Kingdom" races right along, propelled by writer Matthew Michael Carnahan's semi-naturalistic dialogue that might feel too hardboiled if all the actors speaking it weren't so crazy good. It's hard to single out any of the cast when they're all bringing it like this, but Barhom's turn as a Saudi policeman who respects his peoples' laws and culture but wants to bring the terrorists to justice is incredible.
Berg's direction's a little harder to pin down. Sometimes the camera bounces along with the team in a car like it's right there with them, other times it wanders through Riyadh and its citizens like a glider, as if trying too hard to humanize the Saudis as hard as it's played up Foxx as a great father and ultra-competent leader.
It's utterly outstanding at action, though, from the grim opening attacks to the breathless danger that appears once the team closes in on its suspects. The gun battles near the end are some of the most tense I've ever seen, nailing the "Bourne Ultimatum"-level violence with an intensity so creepy you'll feel guilty for feeling exhilarated by it.
Reviews for "The Kingdom" are all over the place. Some people think it's nothing but whoo-hah chest-thumping about heroic Americans stomping on bad dudes because the Middle East is a bunch of chumps who can't clean up their own mess. Berg's other major directing credit consists of "The Rundown," that one movie with The Rock and Seann William Scott that looked bad but was actually pretty fun. Carnahan hasn't written anything else at all. They're unknowns. It's hard to know whether to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But "The Kingdom" speaks for itself in its writing, in the performances of its knockout supporting cast, in its "Good God, am I watching the first 10 minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan' here?"-type action. It's fair to naysay the way Foxx and Barhom are lionized, but the ending undercuts not only what they accomplish and the politics around them, but also their very motives as humans. Maybe that won't work for everyone.
It worked for me, and it was devastating.