The first level looks at militant extremist devastation, the second, at father-son-relationships -- the serious one between the unidentified Arab father and son, and soon after, in America, the happy one between FBI Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his son Kevin (Tj Burnett) as they participate in a Bring Your Dad to School day.
All of this happens within the film's first 10 minutes, a superb set-up for what's to come by actor-turned-director Peter Berg and first-time writer Matthew Michael Carnahan. Because so many Americans were killed in the explosion, the FBI steps in, with one agent announcing, "It's time to put boots on Saudi sand," at a hastily arranged meeting. One of the film's motifs shows the political, cultural and military differences between East and West. As Americans prepare to head to Saudi Arabia to investigate the atrocity and find the person responsible, Saudi National Guard members and state police are busy beating suspects senseless.
Eventually, four FBI agents (Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason
Bateman) are sent over, received unenthusiastically by officials who consider them intruders. They're given five days to conduct their investigation under extremely difficult circumstances (such as sleeping quarters in a school gym instead of a hotel). To put it bluntly, they are hobbled by rules and restrictions. And they have plenty to think about when they come across a typical sign in the area that reads: "Use of lethal force authorized beyond this point."
Foxx, playing the man in charge, turns in a great performance, presenting Fleury as strong, calm, angry and frustrated. Cooper, as usual, is note-perfect, this time as an explosives expert who's literally ready to jump into his work. Garner's presence is at first confusing. After all, why would the FBI send a woman to do secret work in a place where the presence of a woman -- face uncovered -- would simply draw attention? But she plays the part well, and her character does become an integral part of the story. Bateman initially seems to be there for comic relief, but his character, too, grows in importance, even as he's tossing off well-placed one-liners.
The first half of the film moves along at a somewhat leisurely pace, focusing on how much trouble the agents have doing their job and on Fleury's testy relationship with his honorable but by-the-book contact man Col. Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, in the film's most complex and emotional performance). These segments are interspersed with glimpses of peaceful local family life, with troubling scenes of secret terrorist meetings where talk is about death to the infidels, and with furtive peeks at the manufacture of nail bombs and suicide vests.
The second half doesn't even resemble the first, as the film suddenly segu & eacute;s into a thriller. One of the Americans, happening upon the wrong place at the wrong time, is grabbed by terrorists. A wild pursuit ensues -- heading, of course, directly to the "bad part of town," complete with guns, grenades and missiles being fired at the would-be rescuers. The mayhem is given a shot of adrenaline via rapid, practically out-of-control camera movement and editing, and Danny Elfman's thundering, percussive score.
To some degree, The Kingdom turns into the action version of A Mighty Heart -- the Daniel Pearl story -- in that it features "good" Arabs who are working to help people, and "bad" Arabs who only want to inflict pain and suffering.
The film's ending, which was changed a number of times before director Berg's wishes were met, ties up the stories at hand (at a terrible cost), and turns, finally, to a conclusion without a shred of hope. It carries on with and drives home the father-son connections, and reflects on the fact that there will always be insurmountable differences between the East and the West. It's brilliantly done and very sobering.