Team America Plus Two
Peter Berg made one of my favorite movies: the Texas football tragedy, Friday Night Lights. Does that qualify him to make a Saudi Arabian terrorism comedy? I exaggerate, of course. The Kingdom isn't a comedy, it's a state-of-the-art action flick. But what that means is plenty of comic moments stuck into the action the way nuts are stuck into baklava, to make it crunchier and tastier.
Comic moments also do a great service to action heroes and heroines, by humanizing them and showing how they can keep their cool even when being shot at. In these and other respects, The Kingdom, about a team of four FBI agents sent to solve a terrorist massacre in Riyadh, is technically expert but not thematically profound. The cast is great but predictable: two white guys, one a wise veteran (Chris Cooper) and the other a bumbler on a steep learning curve (Jason Bateman); one saintly tough African American (Jamie Foxx); and one sexy feisty gal with puffy lips and puffier you-know-whats (Jennifer Gault).
But here's the twist: the film adds two more cool customers, cast in the same mold, who are Saudis. One is a colonel played by Ashraf Barhom, an extraordinary actor about whom it is proving difficult at the moment to find a decent online bio. (He does such a good job, and is obviously so sought after, that this dearth of information is itself quite intriguing.) The other is his sergeant, played by Ali Suliman, who did such a brilliant job as a hesitant suicide bomber in Paradise Now. (Information on him is equally elusive.)
After all the complaints, some justified, of stereotyping of Arabs in Hollywood movies, especially the action genre, the presence of these two highly sympathetic characters (whose devotion to Islam is smoothly inserted) seems worthy of notice. At the same time, I wonder: The Kingdom was not filmed in Saudi Arabia but in Abu Dhabi (and Phoenix). But the image of the Saudis is so positive, the film could pass as state-of-the-art propaganda. It's not that, of course. It couldn't be. Could it?