The Kingdom: big dumb fun

Look, if you want to know the history of Saudi Arabia, read a book. But if you want two hours of thrills, shoot-ups and car chases, watch The Kingdom.

Vicky Francis

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Banned in Bahrain and Kuwait, The Kingdom, by virtue of suppression alone, has generated a frisson of interest here in the Arab world.

An action thriller based around the bombings of US residential compounds in Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom has so far been reviewed largely on political criteria – its cultural sensitivity and topical pertinence have been the measurements of its success or failure. A source at the cinema committee of Kuwait’s information ministry justified the ban thus: ‘The screening of the film has been banned in Kuwait for many reasons, chiefly because it is a false depiction of facts’. (1)

Needless to say, the same criteria were not applied to Resident Evil: Extinction or Ratatouille, which are both currently on general release. (Perhaps Kuwait’s information ministry thinks the tale of a talking blue rat becoming a master chef is based on a true story.) The Kingdom cannot be shown in Saudi Arabia itself, of course, because cinemas have since long been diagnosed ‘unIslamic’ and shut down.

For Western film critics and Arab censors alike, discussion of the film has not centred on its cinematic appeal but on its factual quality. The opening credits offer a potted history of US/Arab relations in graphics, bar charts, newsreel footage and soundbites from former US presidents. The narrative concludes on 9/11 and is a model of concise storytelling – at least compared to Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentations. Informed by suicide bombings from 1996 and 2003, it is clear that director, Peter Berg, and screenwriter, Matthew Michael Carnahan, want their movie to seem ‘torn from the headlines’. But critics have also suggested that in their attempt to ‘do a Syriana‘, Berg’s and Carnahan’s reporting of history is completely inaccurate.

To those film critics, I say ‘read a newspaper, darling’. Everyone else should be at liberty to watch a noisy, solid and contemporary thriller. Strip away the opening graphics and we are left with what is more or less a conventional chase film, just some way behind The Bourne Ultimatum for breathless thrills. Sure, the factoids are dropped into the dialogue – we’re told that the existence of 5,000 Saudi princes undermines a rational political system – but for the most part we should just sit back and enjoy the ride. In fact, The Kingdom could quite easily be treated as a companion piece to recent dumbass shoot-out movie Smokin’ Aces, which features many of the same actors in supporting roles, and is directed by Carnahan’s brother Joe.

The plot goes something like this: A crack FBI investigative team (played by Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper) are sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East. Ronald Fleury (Foxx) walks away from some sugary displays of parenting to blackmailing the Saudi embassy into giving his team five days to apprehend the culprits. The team’s intelligence specialist (played by Bateman) prepares for action by reading the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam. Full marks to the team for getting this far; in real life, Garner considered location work in Abu Dhabi too dangerous, and sent a stunt double. And most of the location filming took place in Arizona.

Kinder critics have treated the movie as a kind of CSI: Arabia, which is a fair description. Though if the clues were signalled any more obviously, Dubai would retaliate instantly by building an even bigger clue, complete with underwater hotel. With the middle act of the movie spent wiping out a junior cell of the ‘Abu Hamza’ organisation (who, we must suppose, does not bear any relation to the UK-based hook-handed Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri), everything is set up for a final showdown, where the FBI agents suddenly go at it like Navy SEALs. This huge capacity for superhuman violence and gunplay, not normally acquired at Quantico, perhaps explains why no one thought it necessary to include a translator in the team: it was always going to end in a firefight.

The Kingdom makes a decent fist of doing what audiences are coming to expect from action thrillers. And if you strip away the critical discussion, which focuses on what the film has to say about international politics, you meet with some pretty satisfied audiences. It is reported that test screenings of The Kingdom took in a predominantly Muslim, British Asian audience in order to fine tune ‘the message’. This resulted in an expanded action hero role for Ashraf Barhom as Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, the Saudi police officer assigned to babysit the FBI agents. Despite an apparent concern that young Muslims would back ‘Abu Hamza’ and his assassins, the test screenings saw audiences rooting for ‘the good guys’ instead.

Thus all the evidence – so obvious that even Fleury and his team could eventually spot it – points to the film’s role as a thriller rather than some didactic encounter with the inconvenient truth about US reliance on Saudi oil. Like I said, strip away the opening lecture and this movie tells you as much about international relations as Resident Evil: Extinction.

Vicky Francis is a freelance writer based in the Middle East.

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spiked-issue: Film

(1) Kuwait, Bahrain ban The Kingdom, Arabian, 12 October 2007.

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