2007 hasn't exactly been a winning year for war-themed films at the box office. 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 this past fall. 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 crime-lab crew 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 cyber-terrorists than a legitimate thriller than requires some thought and reflection on the current state of global affairs.
Make no mistake, 'The Kingdom' isn't a stocky drama or preachy parable -- it's a fiery hybrid of military action and political intrigue that pounds along to a 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 continually 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 Arabians in the film. 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 this 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 thriller that kept me entertained. It's certainly not going to show up on many year-end Top Ten lists, but it has tense action, compelling performances, and a tight story. Fans of "24" and "CSI" should definitely check it out.
'The Kingdom' arrives on HD DVD with a technically impressive 1080p/VC-1 transfer 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 makes this transfer something less of a showcase for all of the wonders 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 smatterings of digital noise, mild artifacting, and inconsistent grain fields. Thankfully, these source issues are infrequent and don't detract much from an otherwise proficient transfer.
Universal originally announced that 'The Kingdom' would arrive on HD DVD with a Dolby TrueHD audio mix, but the final retail release only includes a standard Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps). At first, I wasn't too concerned about the omission, as I've reviewed plenty of "ordinary" tracks that are actually quite remarkable. Unfortunately this mix isn't one of them.
To be blunt, 'The Kingdom' features a surprisingly flat audio mix that seems to prioritize volume over legitimate weight and resonance. Dynamics are decent, but they fail to produce the crisp highs and solid lows of better tracks on HD DVD. Explosions are bound up in the front channels, gunfire sounds a tad shrill, and revving engines are too throaty to match the on-screen tension. To make matters worse, the surrounds aren't as aggressive as I expected and the soundscape seems sparse for a film with so many crowded environments. If I had to guess, I'd say a more substantial TrueHD track was pulled at the last second, leaving 'The Kingdom' at the mercy of a lesser track that was never intended to be more than a secondary audio mix.
Still, for a standard audio mix, this track is just fine. Dialogue is nicely balanced in the center speaker, pans are transparent, and a suitable amount of attention has been paid to interior acoustics and exterior ambiance. The best audio moments bookend the film and the track does finally pull itself together in the last twenty minutes to deliver a bombastic and climactic endgame. All in all, this one certainly isn't a complete failure -- it just doesn't live up to my expectations of how a recent war film should sound on a high definition release.
The HD DVD edition of 'The Kingdom' includes all of the special features that appear on the concurrently-released standard DVD, upgrading a couple to full high definition. Universal has also blessed this release with a great collection of exclusive content for this HD DVD release, which I'll discuss in the next section.
'The Kingdom' is a gripping thriller that will certainly pick up new fans that missed its theatrical run. This HD DVD edition features a sharp and faithful transfer, a decent but disappointing Dolby Digital Plus audio mix, and an impressive array of standard and exclusive supplemental features. While this release doesn't get everything perfect, it is another impressive offering from Universal that will satisfy 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.