Thursday, September 27, 2007

Peter Berg brings America to The Kingdom. Get ready for the onslaught.

by Ryland Walker Knight

You tell me about fashion?

Despite its questionable politics, Peter Berg’s busiest film yet, The Kingdom, blows up a lot of stuff, and kills a lot of people, really well. Which is to say it never bores however bull-headed it may bluster. The flip side, of course, is that the film assaults its audience as much as its villains (and its heroes). Aping Paul Greengrass (the Bourne sequels) and producer Michael Mann’s recent work (Miami Vice), Berg’s always-already moving camera has neither the sense of style (composition, color, editing) nor the formal curiosities of his influences. Worst of all, though, The Kingdom has a simple bully mentality, not any generosity.

[For the rest of the review click here and you will be forwarded to The Daily Californian's website.]

You want to do what?

My review does not mention that in four minutes of screen time, maybe, Jeremy Piven steals every second he's given. I didn't see Smokin Aces but I heard he was a little toned down. I think we all know he's at his best (or most fun) when playing a jerk, or simply a frail human (on the inside; his physique is astonishing, impressive, fit). But he's no reason to see the movie. If you plan on seeing the movie go for the shoot out scenes. I think Berg is developing a nice filmography as a director but he may be relying on his version of the Greengrass aesthetic a little too much. Friday Night Lights succeeded because there were moments of calm littered throughout, and a few terse home-life scenes that dug deep, not because it was nonstop motion. The reason the third Bourne movie works well is because the plot is all MacGuffin. Every scene is exposition. This makes plot irrelevant. The film announces itself, all at once, as a deliberate recapitulation of the whole trilogy while renewing and rewriting its purpose. Also, Bourne is not about politics: it's about movement through the ever-encroaching modern world. Its motives are squarely ethical. The Kingdom, on the other hand, subverts its ethics/morals under the weight of its politics. And it's not like it's got some novel ideas. It's Syriana, but oddly right-wing; and it has a less complex (obfuscated?) plot. What's funny, though, is both The Kingdom and Syriana rely on their plots in a way Bourne Ultimatum does not, which makes Bourne's political implications (while oblique and vague) resonate in a more honest, less propagandized, fashion. If Greengrass argues for anything in the last installment it's that surveillance is scary-quick now and you are its prey at all times, even if you have magic in you like Jason Bourne. Also, the Manhattan car chase is fucking dope. The Kingdom doesn't have anything to rival that. But it does have a good, if slightly misguided, cast. (That enough side-commentary? Maybe I'll finally write more about why The Bourne Ultimatum actually does kick some butt at a later date. Now I've got to see about some Wes Anderson.)

UPDATE: Friday, September 28th, 2007:
Steven Boone has some similar thoughts over at The House Next Door. I think his first sentence says it all: "The Kingdom is a two-faced liar." (Also, the comments section is already contentious. I mean, wow!) So a few more words to the wise: Skip The Kingdom this weekend. Go see Morocco on Sunday at the PFA, if you live in or near Berkeley, California. And tonight you have the opportunity to see Seconds at the Castro, in San Francisco. (It's clear how I organize my film-going timeline, right?) Also, you could go see The Bourne Ultimatum since it's probably still playing in a lot of cities. Or, how's this, see both Bourne and The Kingdom and tell me if you think I'm way off base in my practice of evaluation regarding these two objects of interpretation and how they (kind of) speak to one another -- or how they use wildly different voices while (superficially) employing a similar visual vocabulary. (Another key distinction: The Kingdom is about how Jaime Foxx and his team engage the world they are temporarily inhabiting, whereas Jason Bourne literally runs through everything.) Okay, now I really need to write this thing up, right?


  1. Razorsharp review, Ry. Get ready for hate mail at The Daily Cal, if the response to my Kingdom review at the House is any indication. Who knew neocons actually read?

    I like this: "But, of course, there are other Others to hate on out there, and “The Kingdom” sure does like its Near Easterners in an American box—or wrapped up in bombs."

  2. Glad I read the reviews by Ryland and Steven first. Since my expectations were sufficiently lowered, I ended up enjoying the film. I don't think the politics are the weak point, however. The herky-jerky camera style is cliché by now. This visual approach is the modern era answer to film noir chiaroscuro. In both cases, a ‘stylistic’ technique has been employed to hide low budgets. For the post-war noir directors, harsh lighting with plenty of shadows allowed them to skimp on sets. For today’s action maestros, the shaky-cam hides a lot of sin.