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Kingdom, The (HD DVD)
The script for The Kingdom was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote a script for another equally politically charged film with Middle Eastern themes in Lions for Lambs. The Kingdom seemed to be a faster-paced and more action-packed film, and although Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) could have very easily directed it, he decided to produce the film, with Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) directing. Mann's name still remained a benefit helping to bring in quite a recognizable faces to this little project.
The Kingdom is set in the present, and starts with an outline of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and covers the internal tension within the latter, while also making sure the oil consumption of the U.S. is front and center. A recent terror attack at a U.S. camp in Saudi Arabia has killed almost two hundred, and although the State Department and Saudi government formally disapprove of the move, a handful of FBI Agents are sent to the country to investigate the bombing. Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx, Ali), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper, Adaptation.), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner, Juno) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) try to find a culprit to the incident, but they are heavily hamstrung by a Saudi Colonel named Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, Paradise Now), who has been ordered to restrict the movement of the group. Slowly, but surely, the ties loosen and tense feelings seem to warm, as they seek out the responsible parties.
The way that Berg approaches this material should be commended. The initial incident was shown with an unflinching eye, as American civilians and others are gunned down while they play a recreational softball game. Near the film's end, there is a chase sequence where the agents have to rescue a fellow American is also one of the more tense moments emotionally that I can recall seeing in quite some time. Those moments are good, but there are others which don't elevate the material into Syriana, or other similar films.
First off, the material, while somewhat bold, doesn't take the logical or courageous steps. The film's ending, while leaving the viewer with a chance to think, still manages come across as a little bit on the "up" side, especially when you take into consideration how the previous fifteen minutes played out. Secondly, the middle act, where Al Ghazi and Sergeant Haytham (Ali Suliman, Lemon Tree) seem to let their guard down a little bit and relate a bit more to their Western counterparts (particularly Foxx), well, it just was like a lot of other films where two different sides with small arms start to respect one another. I bristled when watching some of these scenes, though I gladly laughed at any scene that Bateman was in, as he's starting to corner the market on scene-stealing supporting roles in films both big and small.
Ultimately, over the last 18 months of films that deal with the Iraq War, or the Middle East and America's place or relevancy in it, The Kingdom does seem to have its heart in the right place. However, it falls into a lot of the conventional action film thinking which makes it less than profound, even bordering on greed; it tries to be sensible while still trying to bring in the action film crowd. The final action sequence is good, but most of the other material comes from things already seen before.
The HD DVD:
The Kingdom is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen using the VC-1 codec, or as I like to call it, Universal's favorite codec. Berg tends to employ a lot of static movement in most of the shots, as a means to give the film a slightly rough and gritty look, and the detail seems to hold up fairly well during all this movement. However, there's some discernible grain to the image and the occasional artifact from time to time. File under good, but not great.
Surprisingly, there's not a Dolby TrueHD track to speak of, only a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track. And more surprisingly, the film is a little bit more dialogue driven than I was expecting. Most of the time the dialogue is pretty well anchored in the center channel, with an occasional speaker pan or two. And when the action kicks in, it's done rather effectively, with a lot of low end fidelity and clarity. The downside of the soundtrack is that it lacks the immersion and surround activity I was expecting for something that possessed a bit of slam and bang. Another good, but not great effort.
On the surface there seems like a lot of material here, but upon further examination, it might not be quite as much as you'd expect. Berg contributes a commentary that is surprisingly bland. I've seen him in interviews (particularly on the Dinner For Five show with Jon Favreau) and he's a great storyteller and a lively guy, but it doesn't seem to translate well on this commentary, which is pretty straightforward and has him watching a lot more than speaking. He does have quite a bit of love for the crew who contributed to a particular scene every so often, so that's nice. Three deleted scenes (11:04 and in high definition) are really more extended sequences than anything else, but a look at the freeway sequence (18:17) is a little more in-depth, with previsualizaton footage and various angles makes it fairly comprehensive. Not to mention the cast shares their thoughts on the sequence and the part they played in it, and it's decent. When you first see that "Creating the Kingdom" is an eight part documentary, you expect good things, but cumulatively, the piece lasts a little over a half hour and isn't worth writing home about. "Obligation to Authenticity" (7:16) is when Berg discusses how the film came together and the cast shares their thoughts on the feature. "Fire in the Hole" (2:25) is a look at the cast's research on the munitions that came to life in the film, while "Simple Ballistic Issues" (4:15) shows the cast using small arms in further preparation. "Building a Kingdom" (6:15) gets into the production design and walks through the film's firefights, while "On Location in Abu Dhabi" (3:30) is just that. "King Style" (3:10) is more of Berg as he talks about his visual style and direction, "Foreign Relations" (4:40) spends time with the non-American members of the cast, and "Friendship" (4:01) includes some final thoughts on the film from the big names.
There's still a little more to whet your whistle. Getting past the Universal downloadable trailers, the U-Control feature offers a mix of decent material. A "Mission Dossier" section includes computer animations and more previs footage of the large stunt sequences, and a separate picture-in-picture function includes even more footage and interviews from the cast, crew and production team in general, and on set footage to boot. There's also a look at the above mentioned firefight from the perspectives of the stars which is somewhat repetitive but an interesting inclusion. An interactive timeline on the Saudi-US relationship provides for some interesting trivia as well.
The Kingdom is an interesting rumination on the current situation in the Middle East, though it falls into some formulaic and slightly unendurable character development from time to time that should have been done earlier on, without coming across as a cop/buddy film of sorts. The technical merits of the film are good but not superlative, as is quite a bit of the other stuff on the HD DVD combo disc. If you liked the film, you'll like this disc, but this is hardly reference quality or exhaustive by any means.