Movies about terrorism and the war on terror have been no-shows at the box-office. But "The Kingdom" could change that.
This is loose history but gripping drama, an action thrill ride ready-made for "C.S.I. Nation," a crime scene investigation in Saudi Arabia that encompasses American-Arab mistrust and hatred, political infighting in the Bush administration, Saudi bashing that turns to Saudi understanding, braced with stunning shoot-outs and chases.
Jamie Foxx sheds some of the cool pose that's made him insufferable since "Ray," playing special agent Fleury, the determined, no-nonsense Fed who leads an F.B.I. team of four into the kingdom after the infamous Riyadh massacre of Americans in May 2003. He has to make threats, skirt authority and pull strings (using a willing newspaper reporter) to strong-arm the Saudis into letting his team investigate the shooting and bombings.
The Saudis don't want more Americans there, especially F.B.I. agents. The State Department and the attorney general (Danny Huston, at his most venal) don't want to let them put "U.S. boots on Saudi soil."
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But Agent Fleury knows that the trail of the murderers will go cold at the crime scene within 36 hours. He rounds up a weepy but tough pathologist (Jennifer Garner), a bomb expert (Chris Cooper, perfect as always) and comic relief (Jason Bateman), whose role seems to be that of Jewish provocateur in the land of the Saudis.
They run smack up against official Saudi stubbornness, Muslim tradition and a deteriorating crime scene as they scramble to solve the slaughter and catch who did it, all within five days.
The movie's genius is the balance it gives the story. Yes, 15 of 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and yes, much terror money flows from royals and rich people in this repressive monarchy. But the films shows that Saudi cops, represented nobly and testily by Ashraf Barhom of the superb "The Syrian Bride," can be patriotic family men who abhor torture (ineffectual, here) as much as most Americans. Col. Al-Ghazi, Barhom's character, obstructs and follows orders from whichever prince he reports to until he is impressed by U.S. crime investigation skills.
"We're good at this," Fleury tells him. "Let us help." His team proceeds to prove it.
Cooper's Agent Sykes drawls jokes and wades in muck with soldiers who can't understand his profanity (good thing).
Garner's medical examiner copes with laws that say no infidel can touch a dead Muslim. Bateman's Agent Leavitt cracks jokes and reads his "Idiot's Guide to the Koran."
And Fleury alternately charms, threatens and tricks assorted officials to try and solve the puzzle and find the bomber and those who plotted this assault.
Director Peter Berg, with a screenwriting assist from Michael Mann, filmed this "Bourne" style - extreme close-ups; jittery, hand-held cameras; rapid cutting. He squeezes a Saudi-American history lesson into the opening credits, and lingers over the bombing's prelude - a sun-drenched picnic complete with baseball, apple pie and Chevrolets.
But when the bullets fly and bombs explode, everybody, including the viewer and even the thickest New World Order die-hard, has to see you can't transport Americana to a part of the world that hates us.
It's not history. Facts and events were changed and the names of assorted members of the Bush administration were altered as well. It didn't happen like this.
But "The Kingdom" lays out the differences and similarities between us and "them" in a way that's informed without being inflammatory, enraged without crossing over into racism.
Best of all, when it errs - and the fact-altering, easy-solutions, always-get-their-man TV cop drama ethos doesn't help - at least it errs on the side of exciting and thoroughly entertaining.
Rating: R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and for language . Director: Peter Berg . Cast: J amie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Ashraf Barhom, Jason Bateman, Chris Cooper . Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes .