Tuesday, 28 August 2007

EIFF: The Surprise Movie ~ The Kingdom - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Running Time: 110 mins
On General Release in October

New EIFF artistic director Hannah McGill wasn't kidding when she giggled nervously "you might not expect this from me, I have no track record!" For this was the Surprise Movie, an EIFF staple where audience members buy a ticket with only the promise not to be dissapointed, never an easy promise to keep, especially when you've sold out the screening. The festival brochure boasts previous surprise movies, including Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, so McGill had a lot to live up to. Edinburgh is very much an audience orientated festival and since this was her first year, she had to gain the audiences trust.

So, what was the film? Well, I had my own little theory about what we might be seeing on Saturday night. Well actually I had several. The new Coen Brothers picture, No Country for Old Men, was a smash at Cannes but conspicuously absent from this years EIFF line-up. The day before however I had a change of heart, I began to nervously suspect we may have just parted with our hard earned for Atonement. A big budget British film based on Ian Mcewan's novel, which would fit with the festivals theme of 'cinema and the written word'. Keira Knightley, oh the horror!

We took our seats with caution, and suddenly we were aghast. Cineworld had strewn the theatre with advertisement leaflets, predominantly featuring Atonement. That was it, without a doubt we were getting war, love, passion and a night of gagging back the vomit. Surely though there was hope for Coen's? Atonement? Coen's? In the end neither. The surprise movie of the EIFF 2007 was Peter Berg's The Kingdom. Where had I heard of it before? That'll be when I walked past the poster outside and smirked to Emma, "well, it sure won't be that!"

Actor turned director Berg (Friday Night Lights) weaves a tale of a group of FBI agents who go into Saudi Arabia to investiagte an act of terrorism on a complex housing American scientists and engineers working in the oil industry. The film begins with an ambitious CGI title sequence that aims to tell us 100 years of Saudi-US relations, culminating in a breath stopping CGI rendition of the 9-11 attacks. Following this is one of the most disturbing depictions of terrorism captured on screen. The families in the complex are playing in a baseball game, when insurgents speed around in a vehicle wildly firing machine guns mowing down men, women and children. It's brutal and uncompromising, and culminates with a suicide bombing that rattled the very cinema theatre. Yet the film that follows does not always adhere to the agenda set out by this unsettling opening.

FBI Agents Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) and Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) are soon sent into Saudi Arabia, an unprecendented action, and team with reluctant Saudi Captain Haytham (Ali Suliman). The core four are your
typical, Michael Bay-esque, protagonists cracking one liners and earnestly emoting when they see innocent children. They bar room banter, especially that of Bateman, undercuts a lot of the films tension. After setting the premise up as based in history with an air of seriousness, it basically becomes a carnage-fest. But what a carnage-fest!

Berg doesn't have the control or choreography of Paul Greegrass, but this is visceral in your face action that has you ducking when you hear whizzing bullets. Ocassionaly you lose track of the characters, and the shameless turning up of the volume to ear splitting levels grates, but over all Berg's action repertoir is very impressive. It's the brains behind the film that aren't functioning all too well. It esentially wants to preach that we're all the same but divided by senseless hate. Yet, the attempts to express this point rings false. Haytham and Fluery reminsce over watching the Incredible Hulk (or the Green Beast as he was known in Saudi) in what is supposed to be a "see! we're the same!" moment. Haytham's foreign ways can't be all that bad if we share culture, but what we actually share is American culture. The message should be that we're all inherently human, but what you get is that we're all inherently American.

Yet, do we praise The Kingdom for trying and falling short of political pertinence, or do we lambast it for naively trying at all within the action genre? The ending is for me, what seals the deal. It's surprisingly pessimistic when it had the opportunity to be flag waving, and in the end no mutual love of Marvel comics can overcome the 100 year tug of war depicted in the opening. The Kingdom may be loud and dumb but it has a conscience even if it struggles to efectively convey it within the constraints of the genre. It dares to draw direct parallels between the beliefs of the FBI and Al Qauida, and even if does drop the ball, it raises questions rarely even murmured in the action film arena. If Hannah McGill's choices are always this left of the field, always take a risk and get the cinephile community that is built around the festival talking then she has nothing to worry about.

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