Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Kingdom; when you suddenly realise that you've got hundreds of bullets to use up

With a title like The Kingdom, I'm fighting to avoid openings like "It's good to be the King" and with the credit sequence I had the terrible temptation to say "Oil be back."

The Kingdom wants to be a much more serious film than that. Which is probably why it's a bit all over the place. The one real pleasure is Chris Cooper. A while back I watched Chris playing the worst traitor in FBI history. I thought he deserved an Oscar for playing a role which didn't make any sense and at least making me buy it while it was happening. He doesn't have anything like as much to do in this movie, but Chris Cooper is always value for money. There's a moment near the end when our battered heroes are heading home and the camera moves from one face to the next, close in to the eyes. Jamie Foxx looks like he always does - as if just before they took the shot, Michael Mann had to tell him his profit points were going to be cut. Jason Bateman - well, to be honest, he's not that interesting to look at in the first place and going in close doesn't help that any. Jennifer Garner - well, she's been criminally under used up to now, so I wasn't expecting much. Then the camera moves to Cooper and without even blinking, Chris' face tells the audience that it's been a bad day and there wasn't even that much point to it. I wish I knew how a good character actor can do that, but it's worth watching even when you don't know.

The Kingdom opens with a didactic credit sequence which explains recent Saudi history for the under fives. Michael Moore would probably have said "MMMM. I don't want to go quite that far over the top this early." Michael Moore, mind you, wouldn't have stumped up for all the fancy transition effects, but I also don't think he would have been quite so unsubtle in trying to hammer home the link between religious nutjobs in Saudia and planes flying into New York landmarks. Hey ho, there you go, the audience is primed. So we cut to the premise. Terrorists attack a random Western housing compound. With way too much bait and switch and organisation. First two terrorists go in shooting, then another one dressed as a cop blows himself up while telling panicked Americans to come towards him for safety. Then we see the first responders getting blown to bits with a third bomb set up for hours later.

In real life, no working terrorist group is remotely that well set up, but this is the movies. Except that it's going to so much trouble to try to make us believe that this is a gritty realistic depiction of the realities of the Kingdom. And this problem keeps running through the film - on the one hand, it's trying to be downbeat and realistic, and then it salts in ridiculous action scenes and coincidences.

Speed up, then slow down. Having blown everything up, the film slows to a crawl as the FBI try to get a team into Saudia to investigate the crime. Jamie Foxx essentially blackmails the Saudis into it. Of course we've been shown why they need the help; we're shown the head of the Saudi National Guard having one of the surviving Saudi police tortured to get a confession. Plainly, what they need is good old American know how.

And in come our heroes. But there's only four of them, and they're given so little access to the crime scene that they couldn't possibly find out anything unless it was so obvious that even the dumb Saudi plods would have to trip over it. And for an hour or so they stumble over clues and connections too glaring for anyone to miss, before getting sent back out of the country by a panicked State Department. And they get to respect their Saudi opposite number, who is one of the few three dimensional characters in the movie. I don't mean he's particularly convincing, but at least it all hangs together. He's a fundamentally sound product of his culture and he makes sense as a person. What he does at the end of the movie is completely consistent with what he did at the beginning. He's recognisably the same guy, albeit too good to be true. Anyhow, they find one cell and the Embassy rushes them out before they can find anything else.

This is where the title of this post comes in. On their way to the airport, they get attacked by the terrorists (duh? This NEVER happens in real life). And it's great fun, in a random bang bang sort of way. One of them gets snatched by the bad guys and the three others and their two Saudi minders go after the snatchers amid a magnificent expenditure of ammunition. I didn't even try to count how many Saudi extremists got killed. The good guys get their hair mussed a little, hardly surprising given that they have four or five RPGs fired at them and bunch of hand grenades and, oh yes, they're out in the open hiding behind cars while people firing from inside cement buildings hose them down with AKs. Saudi extremists, however, seem to get their training in the same place that Imperial stormtroopers do, and they're handily outshot by four forensics specialists using borrowed guns. Not that the FBI seems to be too hot on fire discipline. It's indiscriminate automatic weapons fire on all sides. Well, most sides. Chris Cooper's character has been the one grown up in the piece from the get go, and he's also the one who uses single aimed shots. Somehow that makes perfect sense.

It's a very Bad BoysPoint Break Hot Fuzz kind of shoot out and it completely undercuts the tone of the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie is trying to be about political and moral ambiguity and accountability. But it can't establish much traction against this noise level. And to be brutal about it, it can't do much with the actors it's got.

I don't quite understand what it is that Jamie Foxx thinks he's doing these days, but in this film he's like the non-acting body double for Denzel Washington. You don't see it as much these days as you did in the old times, but there used to be a hollywood job called "stand in". You got a guy about the height and build and complexion of your star and when you were putting together a shot in the hot sunshine or the hot lights, that guy would stand there and fill in the right amount of space until you got the lighting right. If there was a need for actual performance, you got the actor out of his trailer. I'm beginning to think that Foxx is Washington's stand in, except they keep forgetting to get Washington out of the trailer. Jason Bateman; if he was trying to play an annoying person who you'd actually want to see having his head cut off; perfect casting. Otherwise, I don't know what he was there for except to further diffuse the focus of the film. Jennifer Garner; I don't know if she's a good actress, but I do know that she's got charisma to burn and can carry a scene when you ask her to. In this, it's like someone said, "Oh, and we'll need a chick. Send out for someone." She's just not given enough to do. Or, really, anything to do. The one American actor who gets in some good work is Cooper - and I suspect it's because he's used to having to get a lot done with a bit part.

The Arabs come out of it better. The two most sympathetic Arab characters are well played, and the bit parts are picked up by the Arab "that guys" we've seen a hundred times before. They phone it in, but they phone it in well enough for what's going on around them and they give you a sense of a Saudia which isn't quite a cartoon.

I was curious as all hell as to where it was all filmed. It couldn't have been Saudia, because cinema isn't even legal there. Turned out to be a mixture of Kuwait and Arizona. I'm betting the second unit did all the work in Kuwait as exteriors and car chases and establishing shots and the principal cast stayed in Arizona. But that's not why the whole film rings false.

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