Director Peter Berg is trying for something very different in The Kingdom, and the end result is fascinating to watch on-screen, and well worth thinking about after. Berg's other films have all been spins on familiar genres, some more successful than others. Very Bad Things was a stab at bleak black comedy; The Rundown put fresh energy and effort into the tired buddy film; Friday Night Lights turned standard-issue sports film themes and scenes into a brisk, bracing portrait of small-town America. Now, with The Kingdom, he's taking the suspense and structure of a forensic police procedural and putting it on the world stage. After a terrorist attack on a Western oil-company compound in Saudi Arabia -- perfectly structured by Berg as a cascading series of nightmares that go from bad to worse to awful -- that leaves hundreds dead, FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is insistent that the FBI be allowed to put boots on the ground in Saudi Arabia, despite the insistence of the Saudi and American governments that any such deployment would be politically untenable for both parties.
These are not the concerns of your standard action-flick, but from the jump The Kingdom makes a different class of ambitions and aspirations strikingly clear: The opening credit sequence covers historical highpoints from 1932 (the founding of modern Saudi Arabia) to 1974 (the OPEC oil embargo) to 2001 (the 9-11 attacks, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens). There's a difference between background and backdrop, though, and I was glad to see that The Kingdom's Saudi setting isn't just left as a concern for the production design and costuming teams; it's woven into every moment of the film. It would have been easy to have The Kingdom take place in some fictional nation-state, and Berg and screenwriter Matthew Carnahan deserve credit for guts as opposed to taking the easy way out; when The Kingdom does feel thinly-drawn, perhaps that just confirms that the complex nature of Saudi society and our co-dependent relationship with it can't be fit onto the screen within a two-hour span.