Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The 2007 Surprise Movie

I'm jumping way out of sequence here, but hell, we may as well skip to the annual Film Festival Surprise Movie. The routine here is that they simply announce a movie, which will be the premiere of something-or-other, and you go along at random to see it. Filling this slot is tricky. Obviously you don't want to waste anything that would be a really major draw in its own right, but equally you can't bring in a big audience and then show them three hours of Venezuelan melodrama.

The usual solution is to find something relatively commercial but not necessarily an obvious Film Festival choice. And so the 2007 selection is...

The Kingdom. Which doesn't come out in America for over a month, and won't come out in the UK till October. It's actually been finished for months, but the release was delayed from April after what were apparently positive test screenings, in the hope of giving it a bigger push.

Spoilers lurk below, obviously. Although frankly, it's so Hollywood that you'll be able to see all the plot points lurching mechanically towards you from a very early stage.

It's a thriller loosely based on the Riyadh compound bombing of 2003. Evil terrorists attack an American compound in Saudi Arabia (a workers' facility, not a government one). Lots of people die. After a bit of political manoeuvring, FBI agent Jamie Foxx persuades the Saudis to let his team in to see the crime scene. Much bumping of heads with the Saudis follows, but - can you see where this is heading? - ultimately Jamie Foxx builds a relationship of mutual respect with his Saudi opposite number and together They Fight Crime.

If you're wondering, no, they didn't shoot the film in Saudi Arabia. They used a mixture of Abu Dhabi and Arizona, which is close enough for their purposes.

I can understand why this went down well with American preview audiences. It's well paced as an action film. Foxx is a good leading man. It's got its heart in the right place - it's quite keen to stress that these terrorist guys are indeed criminals in the eyes of the Saudi authorities. It has some cool explosions and some extended shooting. It's full of heartwarming hands-across-the-continents stuff, which kind of works for the most part. A lot of films like this think they're saying something profound about the human condition; I suspect The Kingdom knows full well that it's just an odd-couple action movie at heart, and figures that that's probably enough of a statement in itself for the current climate. And to be fair, corny though it may be, the closing scene does try to draw some parallels that American audiences may be a little more resistant to.

For all these reasons, and very much against my better judgment, I kind of liked it. On balance.

Here's the thing. They know what story they want to tell - Americans and Saudis overcome cultural differences to fight terrorists. Fine. But then they start trying to hammer it into a stock Hollywood framework, and they hit trouble. The Saudis aren't evil, but they are almost invariably portrayed as blithering idiots who need the plucky Americans to come in and sort out their investigation. There's a glimmer of a plot justification for this - the local cops might have been infiltrated, the army has been put in charge and don't know what they're doing - but it's not exactly prominent.

The Saudis don't know how to examine a crime scene. They don't know how to identify wreckage. And they need Jennifer Garner to conduct their autopsies for them - even though she can't touch Muslim corpses, and therefore has to talk a local cop through it on her behalf. You could get away with this plot in Rwanda, but this is Saudi Arabia, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations in the world. I'm sure they can afford a pathologist and a couple of forensic scientists - and the assumption that they need the Americans to do this stuff for them is, well, let's be charitable and say "deeply patronising."

The first act is also likely to be more of a problem for non-American audiences, since it works on the absolute assumption that, well, clearly the FBI should be investigating a murder in Saudi Arabia, and what's this nonsense about them not doing so? Unless you're a flag-waving US patriot, it's probably going to take you a little time to decide that you actually like the protagonists.

Still, it's a decent enough action movie. And there's a much better film in here trying to get out. It just wouldn't take any money at the US box office.