2007 wasn't exactly the best time to be a war film. Across genre lines -- from 'Lions for Lambs' to 'Rendition' to 'A Mighty Heart' -- it seemed audiences just weren't in the mood. Even an actioner like 'The Kingdom' couldn't break $50 million. It's a shame too, because 'The Kingdom' turns out to be a carefully plotted procedural that deserved far more attention than it received.
When two separate terrorist attacks kill dozens of Americans at a housing compound in Saudi Arabia, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) assembles a group of experts to investigate the bombings. His well-rounded MIF team includes demolitions whiz Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics expert Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), intelligence specialist Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), and an invaluable Saudi Arabian colonel named Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). With only five days to unravel the mystery, Fleury and his crew will have to navigate dangerous political waters before they wear out their already tenuous welcome.
I'm really surprised 'The Kingdom' didn't draw more of an audience during its theatrical run. Director Peter Berg ('Friday Night Lights,' 'The Rundown') concocts a potent mixed drink of "CSI" and "24" in which a Jack Bauer stand-in takes Grissom's lab rats to Saudi Arabia. He wrangled a talented ensemble cast, threw in plenty of 'splosions for the masses, and created a trailer that should have single-handedly packed theaters across the country. But somewhere between CNN and MSNBC, it appears Americans have grown tired of the conflict in the Middle East. No offense to a fun flick like 'Live Free or Die Hard,' but it seems people would rather watch a mindless extravaganza about snappy cyber-terrorists than a thriller than requires some thought and reflection on the current state of global affairs.
Thankfully, 'The Kingdom' isn't a stocky drama or preachy parable, but rather a fiery hybrid of military action and political intrigue that pounds along to a fairly climactic end. Playing fast and loose with politics, wartime regulations, and procedural methodology, Berg and screenwriter Matthew Carnahan ('Lions for Lambs') may sacrifice a hint of realism to amp up the film's entertainment value, but each scene is always more tense than the last. More importantly, Berg and Carnahan don't beat their audience over the head with a convoluted agenda... they simply tell a good story. I didn't buy into the film whole hog, but it was certainly entertaining enough to keep me hooked.
Foxx and Cooper deliver standout performances that offer wit and grit at every turn. Foxx continues to prove his ability to anchor the dramatic weight of a film, while Cooper somehow manages to infuse a cliché like "Demolitions Expert" with the multi-layered talent of a master actor. Did I mention Jason Bateman? His character may simply exist for comic relief, but he still delivers a surprisingly authentic performance. Jennifer Garner is the only member of the cast who doesn't quite pull her own weight. To be fair, it's not entirely Garner's fault -- her character appears to have no other purpose other than to provide a few unwelcome emotional outbursts to a movie that would otherwise be dominated by its tough-as-nails attitude.
Garner's character aside, the only other disappointment in 'The Kingdom' is its paper-thin portrayal of the Saudi Arabian characters. Ashraf Barhom does an excellent job as a helpful colonel, but it's clear that his character is meant to function as a balance to the terrorists, political elitists, and military officials that block the "good intentions" of the film's investigators. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the balance... I just wish there was more. 'The Kingdom' comes dangerously close to painting all Saudi Arabians with a single brush, salvaging the descent only with clumsy pardons and twists that have clearly been inserted to alleviate any potential accusations of bigotry.
All in all, 'The Kingdom' is an engaging, occasionally bloated procedural that offers a nice blend of tense action, compelling performances, and a tight story. Fans of "24" and "CSI" should definitely check it out.
'The Kingdom' arrives on Blu-ray with a technically impressive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (which, for all intents and purposes, is identical to the 2007 HD DVD master even though it uses a different codec) that should easily please fans of the film. While Berg tends to favor a post-processed monochromatic color scheme, the picture remains strong and stable throughout. Explosions bathe the screen with warm oranges and bright yellows that make it seem as if the flames could pour off the screen. The entire image has a striking three-dimensional quality that makes foreground objects pop in nearly every scene. Best of all, detail is exceptionally sharp and revealing -- textures are crisp and it's possible to count every pore, hair follicle, and stitch on the screen. Tiny scraps of shrapnel and debris constantly caught my eye and I was extremely happy with the transfer's clarity.
Unfortunately, Berg's stark style prevents this transfer from showcasing all the wonders of high-def. Contrast is intentionally cranked up, whites are overblown, and fleshtones appear as if the director of photography was trying to give the actors a sunburn. The transfer is also occasionally plagued by errant digital noise, mild artifacting, and inconsistent grain fields. Luckily, such source issues are infrequent and rarely detract from Universal's otherwise proficient transfer.
While 'The Kingdom' has finally earned a lossless audio outing (Universal originally announced the HD DVD edition would have TrueHD audio, but the final release arrived with a DD+ mix), Universal's DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track sadly suffers from some of the same underwhelming shortcomings.
'The Kingdom's somewhat flat audio mix and by-the-numbers sound design prioritizes volume over legitimate immersive qualities and resonance. Dynamics are impressive at times, but occasionally fail to produce the crisp highs and solid lows I've come to expect from lossless audio tracks. It doesn't help that explosions mainly erupt from the front channels, key elements lack that patented LFE gut punch I've come to love, gunfire sounds a bit shrill from time to time, and revving engines are slightly throaty. Furthermore, rear speaker support isn't consistent and environmental ambience is sparse for a film with such crowded locales and busy city streets.
Still, once you overcome any initial disappointment, the track's positive qualities should keep you suitably engaged. Dialogue is nicely balanced in the center speaker, pans are transparent, directionality is convincing more often than not, and a notable amount of attention has been paid to interior acoustics and soundscape clarity. The best audio moments bookend the film and the track manages to get it together in the last twenty minutes to deliver a bombastic and climactic endgame experience. I suppose it's appropriate since the film too suddenly focuses on action above all else, but I still would have liked to hear the same audible aggression from the first two acts.
All in all, Universal's DTS HD MA mix doesn't quite stack up to the best Blu-ray action or war mixes available. When I reviewed the HD DVD in 2007, I was disappointed by its DD+ audio and assumed a lossless track would address my complaints. Unfortunately, while there is some notable improvement, the real problem apparently lies in the film's uninspired sound design.
The Blu-ray edition of 'The Kingdom' includes all of the special features that appear on the standard DVD and HD DVD versions, and even presents a lot of the content in high definition. The only major downside is that the disc doesn't include the additional featurettes that appeared (first) on an exclusive bonus disc at Target and (later) as a part of the 'Jamie Foxx Collection' DVD box set.
'The Kingdom' is a gripping actioner that has picked up quite a few fans who missed its theatrical run. The Blu-ray edition features a sharp and faithful video transfer, a nice collection of standard supplements, and a slew of exclusive content (including a variety of PiP and U-Control interactive features). The lone downside is the disc's audio. While the Blu-ray version finally gives fans the lossless track they were deprived of at the last second on HD DVD, the DTS HD MA results didn't blow me away. Still, all things considered, this is an impressive BD disc that should woo anyone who enjoyed the film.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.