The Kingdom

October 4, 2007

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As far as action crime thrillers go, few have even paralleled Michael Mann’s cinematic triumphs. Heat, Collateral and last year’s Miami Vice are three pieces of work by a director at the top of his game – you simply won’t find any better films in this genre from Hollywood. But he has also made the best political drama of the past twenty years in The Insider, the devastating story of a former tobacco company employee who blew the whistle on his ex-company, and a journalists’ struggle to get his story heard.

Both these elements have been combined in The Kingdom, produced by Mann and directed by former actor Peter Berg (The Last Seduction, Mann’s own Collateral), whose directing resume includes the massively underrated tar-black comedy Very Bad Things and the sports drama Friday Night Lights (i.e. the best such film you’ve never seen). The Kingdom is an intense, violent and astonishingly gripping film, balancing dense political drama with stunning bursts of brutal action. There’s an excellent opening credit sequence that shows the history of “The Kingdom”, and moves into the titular place dramatically, tranquil yet tense, Berg’s style immediately evoking that of Mann and at times Steven Soderbergh as disguised suicide bombers infiltrate and blow up an American housing compound in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It’s immaculately well filmed: it throws the audience in the deep end, having no time to fully understand what’s going on before the first shocking actions occur. This is one of the films greatest strengths – danger is constant throughout but we have no time or awareness to brace ourselves for any imminent situation.

From there on the pace rarely lets up. FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) briefs his fellow agents, including explosives expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics specialist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, in a rare departure from his usual comic roles), as to what has happened, and the necessary response that the FBI need to issue. Then the political discussions take place: the geopolitical difficulties they will face if an FBI team land on foreign soil etc. And credit again is due to Berg for keeping these scenes sharp, interesting and most importantly non-clichÈd. But against orders Fleury and co arrive in Riyadh, and it’s there where the elite group have to investigate the crime scene, and Fleury develops a sort-of partnership with Colonel Al-Ghazi, the cop charged with safeguarding the crew’s visit. And, refreshingly, it shows that these characters are not here to save the world: they are flawed characters, at times very not at all diplomatic, though Foxx as Fleury keeps a cool seriousness that rises above the other demeanours.

There script, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Joe and scribe of upcoming Redford/Streep/Cruise film Lions For Lambs), concentrates on fitting both an important political topic (US – Middle-East relations) and a striking action film all into an hour and fifty minutes, and it succeeds very impressively indeed. I’ve already mentioned it’s a bit like the dramatic intensity of The Insider meets the action of Heat, and coupled with the story of Syriana and the immediacy of The Bourne Ultimatum and you’ve pretty much got the foundations of The Kingdom.

But there’s far more to it than that. Fleury and Mayes’ personal connection to the attack provides the film with an emotional undercurrent. Never is it self-important, conceited in any way. Berg directs with power, sensitivity, intensity, and when the practically inevitable extended action sequence arrives in the third act, he pulls out all the stops: explosions, handheld close ups of the chaos; shootouts, moments of disturbing silence, screaming women and children; desperation. The set pieces are truly unforgettable. It sets the pulse racing into overdrive, and displays Berg’s talents: he is an extremely accomplished director.

But the story wouldn’t survive without the cast matching the technical brilliance. Foxx is as driven as ever, superb as Fleury, Cooper presence alone makes any film he appears in much better, and Garner is the most surprising of all, very good as the only female of note in the film. She injects real depth into her role as Mayes. Ashraf Barhoum, however, gives perhaps the most important performance. He is completely immersed in the role of the Colonel, a tough human being not afraid to stand up for what he believes and as intent on catching the terrorists as anybody.

And the last lines really are stunning. These exchanges will stay with you long, long after the credits role. Riveting from start to finish, The Kingdom proves Michael Mann is at the top of the pile – making films with style, action and intelligence in equal measure.

THE CRUNCH

5/5 explosive bits of politics

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