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‘The Kingdom’ wants to be more than it is

Middle East thriller delivers the goods on the action front, but it’s not as deep as it thinks it is. By Alonso Duralde

If “The Kingdom” were satisfied with being a crackling action movie and police procedural about federal agents trying to find the culprits behind a bombing in Saudi Arabia, it would offer an entertaining night at the movie with overtones of current events. But this latest film from director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) has bigger terrorists to fry, and it fails in its attempt to be a serious drama with important things to say about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

The film’s socko opening credits — coming soon to YouTube, no doubt, if they’re not there already — provide a rapid-fire history of U.S.-Saudi relations since the end of World War I and prepare the audience for a much more provocative movie. Also raising expectations for “The Kingdom” is its terrifying opening sequence, which shows terrorists in Saudi Arabia shooting up a baseball game in a neighborhood of U.S. oil company employees; then, when American authorities arrive to investigate, those same terrorists send in a suicide bomber to take out the federal agents on the scene.

This tragedy sets off a rivalry back in Washington, where the Department of Justice wants to step back and let the Saudis handle the situation, while the FBI wants to come in and track down the men responsible for killing their comrades. Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) knows how to play the game, and uses a Washington Post reporter (Frances Fisher) to help him finesse his way into Saudi Arabia to conduct an investigation, alongside fellow agents played by Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman.

While all four Americans are initially greeted with suspicion and hostility by the Saudis, it’s Garner who has the toughest time. When asked if she knows what kind of treatment to expect in a Muslim nation, she replies, “I will be looked at with disdain the entire time we’re on the ground… kind of like south Virginia.”

The local police don’t want the interlopers there, and the American diplomats are either useless (Jeremy Piven has a hilarious cameo as a photo-op–obsessed attaché) or downright hostile (Danny Huston, once again, plays a supercilious jerk). But Fleury charms the local prince and impresses his Saudi counterpart (Ashraf Barhom), and the investigation can finally begin.

There’s a lot to like about “The Kingdom,” from its breathtaking car chases and shootouts to charming, relaxed performances by Cooper and Bateman and a moving turn by Barhom. Foxx, alas, does his cock-of-the-walk routine that wears thin fast, while the usually engaging Garner spends most of the movie mewling and making sad faces about the agent who died at the beginning of the film.

What sinks the movie is its attitude that it’s telling us something deeper than “As long as Americans and Middle Easterners mistrust each other, the bodies will continue to pile up.” And while that statement is, indeed, very true, it’s not a sentiment so Earth-shattering that it’s going to give gravitas to a film that’s entertaining but ultimately disposable.