- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

Actor turned director Peter Berg made an inauspicious bow with the nasty comedy “Very Bad Things” (1998) but gave 2003’s “The Rundown” some knuckle-busting ingenuity.

“Friday Night Lights” (2004) trumpeted his arrival as a director of consequence.

His new political thriller “The Kingdom” will only burnish those credentials.

A terrorist cell of unknown origin torches an American military installation in Saudi Arabia, gunning down men, women and children before setting off a massive bomb. In the U.S., the FBI’s top commanders want to send over a squad of investigators, but they bicker over the political ramifications.

Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) ignores the diplo-babble and assembles his own team (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman) to investigate.

Once in Saudi Arabia, Fleury and company have more than just terrorist cells to confront. Saudi police aren’t too eager to see Americans tromping over the blast site, even if said team knows more about “CSI”-style probes than the locals. Up to this point, the film is more procedural than action-packed, deviating from genre formula only in its theme of cross-cultural tension.

When Fleury gets closer to the culprits, however, Mr. Berg lowers the visceral boom. You won’t find a better 20 minutes of impeccably orchestrated chaos. And while characterization gets short shrift in the smoke, the appealing actors leave us hoping that the hail of bullets will spare them.

Miss Garner makes it through the entire film without losing her scowl. The approach works with this material, mind you, but it makes one appreciate the warmth that Mr. Foxx provides all the more.

Mr. Bateman brings this grim story needed comic relief, and Jeremy Piven drops in briefly as a slimy American diplomat (Mr. Piven, please try stretching).

Given its polarizing subject matter, “The Kingdom” is inherently a political piece of entertainment, but Mr. Berg respects his audience and his characters too much to use the latter as mouthpieces to lecture the former. Until the film’s final scene — which feels like a sop to Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, et al — the director settles for telling a terrific story and lets both sides of the blogosphere score some points.

“The Kingdom” is careful to depict some Muslims as being decent, caring individuals, while also painting the American forces as headstrong and blunt. But American exceptionalism is never far from the surface, in both the skills the FBI agents bring to the task and the militaristic smackdown that comprises the final reel.

Early reviews are already throwing around loaded verbiage like “pro-American” and “jingoistic” to describe “The Kingdom.” Let’s toss in a few less divisive adjectives — “gripping,” “atmospheric,” “terrific” and “original.”

***1/2

TITLE: “The Kingdom”

RATING: R (adult language, violence, disturbing imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Original music by Danny Elfman.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thekingdommovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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