Preying on Americans' two greatest fears—Muslims with explosives and paying more than three dollars a gallon for gasoline—The Kingdom tries to be a lot of things. There are the mystery elements, the thriller elements, the police procedural elements, and the social commentary elements. By the time it all wraps up, all are overwhelmed by the film's action elements, which turn The Kingdom into a full-on Bruckheimer homage, with the entire Middle East situation boiled down to Jamie Foxx firing off rounds from an assault rifle while running from rocket-propelled grenades.
After some snazzy opening credits—which lay out America's involvement in Saudi Arabia's oil fields like a CliffsNotes for people who don't watch the news—The Kingdom gets right to the point. American oil workers in Saudi Arabia live in isolated townships—with green grass, neighborhood barbeques, and softball games—that are apparently constructed out of perfectly clichéd Americana. And then—right in the middle of a barbeque, no less—KA-BOOM! Saudi suicide bombers invade. Machine guns pump lead into terrified Americans, terrorists gleefully shout some terrifying statements I'm relatively sure are lifted from Team America: World Police, and a whole lot of stuff explodes.
Government agent Ronald Fleury (Foxx) learns of the attack while he's sitting in a classroom (the first of many 9/11 references scattered throughout The Kingdom). Soon, Fleury's heading up a team of Americans (including Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman) as they head to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attacks. Like Steven Soderbergh's Traffic or Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, The Kingdom lays a fictional glaze over real events. But while Traffic, and especially Syriana, dug deep, taking risks to comment intelligently on current events, The Kingdom is irredeemably stupid as it flails about, pounding ineffectually at hot button issues between its many explosions. According to The Kingdom, it's all quite simple: Saudis have oil that we need, and Americans (most of whom are either wiseass cowboys, dumb jocks, or pretty girls) need to deal with Middle Easterners to get it (all of whom are loveable bumblers, vaguely sinister officials, or bomb-building jihadists). Our heroes' idea of educating themselves about Saudi Arabian culture begins and ends with Jason Bateman thumbing his way through The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Koran, while at its close, The Kingdom shows how all the region's problems can be solved when Jennifer Garner, looking adorable in combat gear, offers a little Saudi girl a Tootsie Pop.
Not only is director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) out of his league, but Matthew Michael Carnahan's script messes with issues it has no business dealing with. You can make solid, intelligent, and entertaining movies about controversial topics and current events; instead of doing so, The Kingdom mashes and twists those events into a trashy, pulpy popcorn flick. The result is questionably intentioned, messily executed, and loud and boring and ignorant. Actually, come to think of it, maybe I'm not giving The Kingdom enough credit—all those things might, in fact, make it the perfect film about America's role in the Middle East.