It is the new American nightmare: As FBI Special Agent Adam (Jason Bateman) is held down by a gang of hostile Saudis, a video camera is hastily prepared, and a machete-wielding assassin approaches. It should be a scenario distressingly familiar to anyone who has witnessed Daniel Pearl’s execution on the Internet; here, it is presented as the ultimate threat, the polarizing and, by now, almost archetypal sacrifice of righteous Westerner at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.
If that makes “The Kingdom” sound as shamelessly jingoistic as an episode of “24,” it’s not. Yes, there are times when Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script seems callous — at the end of the day, there’s not a problem in this Muslim paradise that an automatic weapon can’t solve. But before his story’s artistic pretensions vanish in a hail of bullets, this is a smart, workmanlike thriller that deftly avoids crossing the line between convincing drama and trashy exploitation.
By now, watching a group of FBI daredevils triumphantly muscle their way into the far corners of the Middle East is slightly cringe-worthy, but “The Kingdom” is not about lionizing American might so much as depicting the struggle between enemies who seem both unwilling and unable to cross a vast cultural divide. When extremists organize the mass slaughter of American citizens on Saudi soil, Fleury (Jamie Foxx) arranges a quick counterstrike, eschewing diplomacy for a chance to crack some skulls. His plan? To kill the killers, plain and simple.
It’s not that simple, of course. Faced with strict guidelines imposed by the Saudi government, Fleury and his crew (rounded out by Jennifer Garner and the peerless Chris Cooper) find their investigation compromised. But once the operation is entrusted to a noble Saudi colonel (Ashraf Barhom), the hunt begins in earnest.
When it does, the FBI quartet is quick to uncover enough clues to indict an entire village of Saudis, and indeed, the trail of evidence leads to a viper’s nest of insurgents, armed to the eyelids. (Apparently, half of Riyadh is dedicated to the destruction of all things American; someone alert Bandar Bush.)
From there, “The Kingdom” retreats into formula, ending with a frenzied shootout that makes the climax of “3:10 to Yuma” seem tastefully restrained.
It’s not so much unsatisfying as predictable. Unlike “Syriana,” a serious meditation on America’s strained relationship with oil-rich nations in the Middle East, Carnahan’s story is more of a standard thriller in which Uncle Sam strikes back and the evildoers bleed accordingly.
There are isolated moments of introspection, when his script solemnly acknowledges the futility of the hostility on both sides, but more than anything else, this a topical, two-hour take on “CSI,” with guns blazing — and, more or less, it works.
The Kingdom ***
Starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhom
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan
Directed by Peter Berg
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes