Review: The Kingdom

Note to Hollywood filmmaking preachers: we know the "enemy" is just like us, and that we share the same hopes and fears ... we get it! "The Kingdom" (IMDb listing) is a $70-million lesson in the obvious, costumed up as a brainless action film, but still preoccupied with teaching a master class in being grotesquely manipulative and shamefully transparent.

When a suicide bombing takes down an American community located in the heart of Saudi Arabia, a small FBI taskforce (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Chris Cooper), led by Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx), is sent in to investigate the remains of the blast site and hunt for the terrorist group responsible. Now inside the country, the freedoms Ronald and his team are accustomed to have been restricted by a new chain of command, forcing the elite squad to use their own tricks and methods of communication to locate the source of the hostility, putting their own lives on the line once enemies find Americans digging around foreign soil.

In several cringing ways, "Kingdom" covers the exact same ground as 1999's "Three Kings." Both films have a lust to be both a strident political statement and jingoistic action blockbuster, but I'm not convinced the mix should be allowed, or perhaps I haven't seen a filmmaker talented enough to pull off such a dichotomy. Here, the director is Peter Berg ("Very Bad Things," "The Rundown," "Friday Night Lights"), who has yet to meet a sickening camera quake or cheap audience-baiting tool he didn't like. Berg is a seasoned vet when it comes to "of the moment" movies, but that doesn't make him competent. It just makes him twitchy and chaotic.

"The Kingdom," however, doesn't offer much chaos for Berg to push around. If you read elsewhere that "Kingdom" is "non-stop action," you have my permission to slap that writer in the face. The picture is actually quite a sluggish production, playing like "CSI: Saudi Arabia," and taking its time trying to pack an elaborate sand castle of a plot containing political intrigue and procedural minutiae. Led by a subtle, refined performance from Foxx, "Kingdom" has moments of triumphant suspense and affable Team USA bonding, complete with Bateman as the cliched wisecracking wuss.

Trust me when I write that you've seen this movie before. You've heard this dialogue. You've seen these performances. As a selection of commentary on Middle East politics and social graces, "Kingdom" is not offering anything novel, and what's here is barely of interest. Berg can tart up the film with nauseating shaky-cam work and orgasmic gunfire, but the only ingredient that's going to make the film as relevant and powerful as it is in Berg's head is innovation. "Kingdom" is woefully short-sheeted in that department.

So where does Berg turn to keep his audience at full attention? Shock value. Since it's a story dealing with the Middle East quagmire, Berg's usage of terrorist iconography such as 9/11 visual references and videotaped beheadings comes off a cheap way to prey on the viewer's fears in the heat of a pedestrian action film. Once the final assault of car bombings, RPG attacks, and graphic knife kills arrives like something out of classic Schwarzenegger, it's clear "Kingdom" isn't as much of an investigation into extremism and the culture of Islamic violence as it is a routine actioner using headline news to keep the material from curdling.

Truthfully, I'm not sure what's more offensive, exploiting real-world violence or treating the audience like they're 12 years-old. Throughout the film, Berg splashes in moments of paralleling worlds, underlining that "we" are just like "them" when it's all said and done; we fear for the safety of our loved ones and we inhale a lust for revenge just like they do. The execution of these moments is straight out of an after school special, and it couldn't be more obvious even if Berg whipped out a laser pointer for faster digestion. If you have a craving to understand the terrorist mind, rent the harrowing "Paradise Now." Need to keep up with world politics? Read a book. "The Kingdom" will offer no help in either department, forgoing intelligent enlightenment for bottom-feeding action nonsense.

Filmfodder Grade: D+