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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Movie Review: Peter Berg's the KINGDOM

PETER BERG’S THE KINGDOM: A GOOD MOVIE THRILLER. ENTERTAINING AND PRO-AMERICAN but not really as sophisticated as it tries to be.
THE KINGDOM does not have as many pretensions, however, as SYRIANA. It is above all a thriller with timely “War on Terror” setting. I imagined US Marines or US soldiers seeing this film in Camp Victoria in Iraq and cheering! That’s not bad in my book. I PREDICT THIS WILL BE A MAJOR HIT of 2007.


By Richard Munro

In days now long, long gone I used to go to the movies after I read the New York Times movie reviews. I might still read NYT reviews for fun as an afterthought but neither they nor the NYT is a part of my daily life anymore. (I still read the WSJ when I can, however which gave the KINGDOM a mediocre review which I disagree with). I went to see the KINGDOM the new anti-terrorist thriller by Peter Berg not because of ads on TV or movie reviews in the paper but from buzz from people I trust on the internet who include ex-Army officers and ex-Marine NCO’s and officers.

I was not disappointed but then I did not expect THE KINGDOM to be LAURENCE OF ARABIA or even THE FRENCH CONNECTION. The first four minutes were, I think, the most imaginative and educational first four minutes of any film have ever seen. So for a few moments the film seems like a four star movie ready to make movie history. I give Peter Berg credit for trying to educate the public about the connection between the American oil industry, America’s support for Israel and the rise of Al-Qaida (Islamo-fascism). He leaves out BP, the British background (but perhaps he assumed everyone has seen Laurence of Arabia) not to mention the French and the Germans and everyone else who was up to their eyeballs in financing and building Saddam Hussein’s bunker’s and armies. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to that initial hype and turns into a very good -but predictable- cops and robbers movie with the good cops (our guys the FBI battling both the bad guys and corrupt turncoats at the same time (reminiscent of let’s say THE UNTOUCHABLES.)

Nonetheless, there is no question that The Kingdom is a worthy effort as a welcome anti-terrorist thriller with SOME brains. The production was professional and the acting, especially by Ashraf Barhom, as Faris Al Ghazi the Saudi cop, was uniformly first class. Jamie Foxx as special agent Ronald Fluery is the kind of black male solid family role model we wish we had more of; but that having been said, he was very good. Jennifer Garner is nice to look at though a little too small skinny I think to fight with the vigor she fights; we needed a homely but towering Gertrude from Iowa or Wisconsin for this spot, realistically speaking. (But since this is Hollywood you have too have some sex-appeal and Texan Garner is cute but not too pretty and girlish for the role). The movie wisely sticks to the drama, however, and has no silly romantic subplots. Ms. Garner is told to cover her ‘boobies’ and she does for the rest of the film; there are no shower scenes here. Chris Cooper, whom I remember from Mel Gibson’s the PATRIOT, does a very good job as the explosives expert who knows how to shoot –reminding me of old David Niven in the Guns of Navarone which I saw when it first came out, thinking it was the greatest film of all time (but I was only six years old at the time!)

In the genre of thrillers THE KINGDOM comes close to the best ranking below classics like the UNTOUCHABLES Sean Connery ,Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner (1987), French Connection (1971) with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider and the The Third Man (1949) with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. THE KINGDOM does have a bad guy ABU HAMSA –presumably a sympathizer with Bin Laden and Al Qaida- but he is not a bad guy you really get to know and hate like De Niro’s Al Capone or Fernando Rey’s Alain Charnier. Who could forget Capone’s banquet scene or the terrorist bombing that killed an innocent little girl or the scene in which the honest cop is frozen to the bone while the corrupt drug king pin is having a leisurely gourmet meal with his ill-gotten gains?

I would rank THE KINGDOM just about the level of Voice of Terror (1942) the entertaining Anti-Nazi Sherlock Holmes film with Basil Rathbone and Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood. Those were entertaining movies, splendidly acted and paced but really only pretended to be sophisticated and worldly wise.

But of course THE KINGDOM is not just in the genre of thrillers. It also is a Middle East mess genre movie so it could be put on the ‘must see list’ along with LAURENCE OF ARABIA ( masterpiece so towering that the KINGDOM is a cartoon by comparison –a good cartoon but a cartoon nonetheless) and the near-great Aussie film THE LIGHTHORSEMEN (1987) directed by Simon Wincer starring mostly Australian cast plus Anthony Andrews who splendidly plays Maj. Richard Meinertzhagen the non-pommy Pommy Officers.

Of course as this setting is the same as Laurence of Arabia they share a character in common: General Allenby. The Lighthorsemen deals more with the Turks than the Arabs but it is still a splendid war film that gives a background to modern Middle East history. It was British Empire and Commonwealth bayonets –not Americans who created Iraq etc. Aramco came later and America has essentially filled the vacuum of a fading and faltering British Empire. This is not a well-known film but I highly recommend it. It was brilliantly filmed and acted and unlike the KINGDOM it is based on a true story not unlike LAURENCE OF ARABIA though from a different perspective.

In today’s culture a movie will have much more impact than a book and if it catches on will have an enduring influence on the popular culture. I have always been a discerning moviegoer and I like to see great films in theaters and on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen. Nonetheless, I believe movies are very important for entertainment as well as for their educational and political value. In the 1850’s people saw stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; today we see movies. So I try to stay up on movies.

Another new film with a War on Terror theme is due out October 2007 called Rendition and the word on this film is that it is anti-American and shows the CIA to be as bad or worse than the Gestapo or the ruthless Cuban DGI or Soviet KGB. I have already made a mental note to boycott Rendition. If I want anti-American propaganda I will watch Al-Jazeera. I didn’t really like the nihilism of Jarhead either though it has some good parts. But I would never see it again nor recommend it to anyone.
I think it was the NYT that said that THE KINGDOM was ‘Syriana for Dummies’. In 2005 I saw Syriana (directed by Stephen Gaghan) which was interesting, particularly in its depiction of he crazed, brutalized and alienated young Muslim (Pakistani) who turns suicide bomber and terrorist. On the other hand the ‘noble Arab prince’ with a PHD (in “Liberal Democracy”?) who is denied his chance at a coup d’etat to turn HIS Kingdom into something worthwhile was, in my opinion a silly caricature perhaps made to pander to Arabs. Gaghan ,who made the movie TRAFFIC, seems to equated all big business (especially Big Oil) with corruption and theft ; forgetting their important role in the development in the economy and the production of a very valuable and needed product. So ultimately I did not find SYRIANA satisfying or believable though it was a good try and a grown up movie.
THE KINGDOM does not have as many pretensions as SYRIANA. The weakest part of the entire movie was the phoney gnomic wisdom ending reminding us that violence only begets violence warning us perhaps not to enjoy vengeance TOO MUCH. But in my view this would be like giving a Hitler Youth SS Division grenadier that last word in a movie which depicted the massacre of unarmed allied soldiers. That was the stupidest movie line I have heard in a long time but I think it was sop to world opinion that the Americans are just as bad as the bad guys so buy a ticket, Mustafa.
But what the KINGDOM is above all, is a thriller with timely “War on Terror” setting. This is no Ken Burns documentary with an attempt at real depth. All the American characters were foul-mouthed secular humanists; one would never know from THE KINGDOM that people from Southern Virginia are more likely to be pure-mouthed Bible thumping Evangelicals rather than cussing nihilists like the Chris Cooper character. The only really moral person in the movie is Ashraf Barhom as Faris; he is SO GOOD I almost felt –momentarily of course- that Islam is the Answer (to cussing and excessive boozing at least). But I will say this as well, the American families wiped out by the terrorist attack seemed pretty clean cut and innocent. There is absolutely no sympathy in this music for mass murder, torture or decapitation by knife which is a good thing. Peter Berg does not know or ignored the fact that Bin Laden and his ilk deeply fear the USA for what it really is: the heart and soul of the Christian West both Catholic and Protestant. Bin Laden knows he can eventually undermine and overwhelm Secular Europacifists but he knows the muscular Christianity of America is his true enemy. If he can destroy or weaken America he can destroy Israel.
Yes, the KINGDOM is not a masterpiece, sorry to say. It is a cross between the UNTOUCHABLES, WHERE EAGLES DARE –they never ran out of ammunition either- and CSI.
Yes, if you want some sleuthing, some heroic action, some adult substance and pure thrills THE KINGDOM will not disappoint. Of all the post 9/11 movies I have seen (World Trade Center, Flight 93, Syriana) this is the best one and I rate it just above Flight 93 for pure entertainment and better than the other post 9/11 movies. The KINGDOM is not a must see movie by any means but it is a very satisfying film if you want to see a wicked gang of bloody thirsty and ruthless terrorists get whooped (they do and good). It is almost like OBJECTIVE BURMA goes to Saudi Arabia (the enemy body count is about the same).
I predict this will be a major hit just for that reason. I remind everyone that in 1968 one of the top grossing pictures was John Wayne’s Green Berets. In some Southern towns younger brothers and sisters of American soldiers and Marines saw it a dozen times. They desperately wanted a movie showing the Americans as the good guys and John Wayne put his money where his mouth was and obliged them. To this day John Wayne is a number one hero to many veterans for that reason alone. They remember he was on their side.
I imagine US Marines or US soldiers seeing THE KINGDOM in Camp Victoria in Iraq and cheering! For them alone, Hollywood should make more movies like the KINGDOM. They did during WWII and they should do it now. Those who do will be remembered honored and loved for all time the way John Ford, John Wayne and Henry Fonda are remembered today with their classic films THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, the SEARCHERS and his MISTER ROBERTS.
So here’s to THE KINGDOM. A rattling good show in which OUR SIDE to quote the London Times, “Kicks Ass”. Hooray for that. The Kingdom

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