“Kingdom' is the action movie we missed all summer

“The Kingdom”, cleverly constructed under the watchful eye of producer Michel Mann, demonstrates what can be accomplished with foresight. The action unfolds with the enrapturing grace of a Cirque de Soleil high-wire act.

At the heart of the design lays the basic human confrontation, good versus bad, the latter possessing indisputably evil intent.

That’s been the element missing this summer. We’ve fought evil machines and personality kidnapping microbes, — adequate stand-ins, but stand-ins nonetheless. There was even the threatening squirrel mutated by pig poop (“The Simpsons”).

The sweetness ofgratuitous violence, flowing as if from an IV hook-up and exciting our most primitive emotions, comes from confrontations between people. Executed through a story in which justice must be extracted, we pay homage to our humanity.

Reassured that the story depicts a righteous crusade, we join with other like-minded souls under cover of a theater’s darkness. We share in the brutal insult of a malicious assault (this one reminiscent of 9/11), and jointly reap the entitlement of a dignified, unmitigated and cathartic revenge.

That’s not an endorsement. That’s just how it is.

The style with which this mechanism is applied separates “The Kingdom” from “Rambo.”

While working in Saudi Arabia, with whom our country has always enjoyed a most sensitive and muddled relationship, an FBI agent dies during an attack on a US compound.

These enclosures, providing homes-away-from-homes for over a half-century to American workers and their families, have generally been considered out-of -bounds for attacks.

Director Peter Berg introduces the inhabitants in a calm and carefree environment–a pick-up softball game, joyful children at play, sunshine—frolicking lambs, unmindful of the impeding slaughter.

When the subsequent bedlam of bullets, bombs and blood subsides, bodies in various stages of dismemberment lay mixed in rubble. Zombied survivors, profoundly absent of comprehension, emerge and disappear in an eerie fog of smoke and dust. Cries of horror and disbelief, expressions held in our deepest reserve, combine in a discordant anguish.

Setting a pace that never lets up, never giving cooler, more rational minds to prevail a squad of FBI agents led by Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) precedes to avenge the death of their comrades and the slain Americans.

Fleury cuts through State Department red tape like a hot knife slicing butter. With caution thrown to the wind, he blackmails a diplomat to pull strings from the Saudi side. Access to the site, if not officially condoned, is reluctantly conceded. Fleury and his crew hop a cargo plane, already headed out to pick up caskets from the catastrophe.

Accompanying Fleury, the FBI team of Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) deplanes in the desert to find scorching temperatures and a chilly reception.

The US embassy and the Saudis regard the agents’ intrusion capable of further provoking the very contingent in the country they unofficially appease, possibly complicit in the massacre.

US embassy underling and Saudi butt-kisser Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven) prevails on the visitors to step lightly. They flick him off with the contemptuous disregard given the dessert flies feeding on the warm rotting debris of the attack site.

Here the casting strategy of “The Kingdom” serves it well.

Foxx, who faltered in the nuance-heavy role of Curtis Taylor, Jr. in “Dream Girls” proved solid, although not spectacular, as a uni-dimensional Ricardo Tubbs in Mann’s Miami Vice—talking smack and kicking butt. Presumably Mann got the message.

As leader of the ad hoc FBI commando band, Foxx’s character Fleury is narrowed by the protocol of his position and forced into a cautious demeanor when dealing with the Saudis.

That works for well for Foxx and the movie. And when the action heats up, he gets loose–as ready as Freddy.

For Fleury’s second-in-command, Sykes, a wily good-old-boy, the demands for kowtowing are less stringent. His social agility, cracking wise, even to the Saudi workers who understand not a word of English, reveals a man who knows how to get things done.

Cooper, surprisingly nimble in his portrayal of Sykes, has played so many government intelligence types he should get a pension. This supporting role, which he plays with a brilliant touch, brings a character with wisdom, depth and measured humor, so often missing in tales of heavy conflict.

Garner’s Janet Mayes, whose boyfriend was the agent killed in the initial attack, mainly serves as eye candy.

Fleury clears the final impediment to action by gaining the trust of Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). Initially reluctant in their relationship, they have far more in common than they could have imagined.

Berg, actor turned director, proves more than adept, both with drama and the choreography of action. Taking us through the house-to-house searches, part and parcel of current conflicts, weaving through women and children, every person a potential enemy, he never loosens the reins on the action or the story, keeping both in balance.

“The Kingdom” fulfills the formula for a good action movie. You can put your brain on hold and not have your intelligence insulted in its absence.

Michael Mann knows the design by heart. He contributed to its current applications as much as anyone. He long ago recognized the mutual dependence of style and content in high concept adventure. And although his productions often favor the former, “The Kingdom” keeps them in balance.

Grade: B

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