Upcoming film ‘The Kingdom’ offers glimpse inside murky Saudi world

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The new film The Kingdom opens with a quick review of the history of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including the oft-forgotten fact that most of the 9-11 attackers were Saudis, as is al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Ladin.

The Kingdom stars Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jeremy Piven. The quick history and good cast set up an expectation for depth and a political thriller bent. The film is directed by Peter Berg, whose previous work includes Collateral. So there is some disappointment when this film turns out largely to be a kick-butt action film, almost Rambo-style, with some passing culture-clash commentary.

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The film’s most obvious culture clash comment is simply the presence of a tough, independent woman and a Jewish man in an elite FBI team investigating a terrorist attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia. The terror attack takes place in a private compound for an oil company’s mostly American employees in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country. Within the compound, the employees live Westernized lives, set apart from the restrictions on behavior and dress, particularly on women, imposed in the rest of the country. According to the film, it is the FBI, not the military or CIA, who are responsible to investigate crimes against Americans in other countries.

Jamie Foxx plays Ronald Fluery, who leads a crack team that is secretly admitted to Saudi Arabia to investigate the terror attacks. The Saudi officials want to keep the presence of the special American FBI team quiet, and would prefer they were not there at all, but the fact that the attack also killed FBI investigators in the country means that the FBI insists on sending the team.

Fluery and some of the team also have personal reasons to be there, as a close friend was among those killed. The special team includes two people who are problematic in Muslim Saudi Arabia: the forceful Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and trainee Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman).

Since their presence in the Saudi kingdom is secret, they bypass the usual customs checks but their Saudi minders decide to collect everyone’s passports. They are upset to find that Leavitt’s passport has stamps from visits to Israel. This would usually bar his entry into Saudi Arabia but they are even more unhappy with his explanation for travel to there, that he had visited his grandmother who lives in Israel. No one mentions Jewish identity but the implication is clear to both sides and to the audience.

The rookie Leavitt is often outspoken but so is the woman on the team. Janet Mayes wears tight T-shirts, no head covering and makes no concessions to Saudi rules for women. This nearly provokes apoplexy in the nervous American diplomat (Jeremy Piven) supervising them, who is already eager to send them back to the U.S. and avoid upsetting any Saudi officials. To top it off, Mayes is no gentle soul but a woman set on revenge, a give-no-quarter female assault weapon with street-fighter instincts.

Not surprisingly, the Saudi police investigating the crime harbor resentment towards the FBI team. There is evidence that some police may have been involved in the attacks. The FBI team’s only ally is a straight-arrow detective, Sergeant Haythem (Ali Suleiman), who truly wants to break up the terrorist cell behind the attacks.

Although the film is set up to explore the challenge of cultural differences and the need to encourage moderate Muslim cooperation in the long-term interest of peace, it soon veers off into a Rambo-style shoot’em up and an exercise in personal revenge, as they try to track down the terrorists’ leader and rescue a kidnapped team member.

The Kingdom is essentially action film material, despite the subject’s potential for something more. There is not much realism but plenty of fast paced action entertainment. The characters remain mostly flat and under-developed, although the good guys are likeable enough. Despite Haythem and Fluery’s attempts to cross the cultural divide, suspicion rules and kill-them-all violence is the center point on both sides. Although the film ends with a nod to the ultimate result of endless cycles of personal revenge, the overall film’s theme is about revenge and offers little hope for an alternative, which ultimately makes The Kingdom grim and depressing viewing.

The Kingdom opens in theaters Sept. 28.