I’ve had an unusual interest in The Kingdom since it began production. Many of the outdoor scenes set at a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia were filmed roughly a mile from my home in Arizona, and a key highway action sequence was filmed a few miles from there. Although I never set foot on the set, I felt as if I had an intimate knowledge of how the U.S. base was being depicted and shot.
Going into the finished film, I feared familiarity would drive me to search for scenes shot on-location rather than pay attention to the narrative. Look, those military houses are actually student housing at a University! The downtown and base sets are right next to each other! Unexpectedly, quite the opposite happened. Director Peter Berg delivered a brilliantly paced film doubling as an emotional roller coaster ride into a hellish conclusion that wouldn’t allow my mind to wander from the story at hand.
The Kingdom centers on a complex bombing at a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia and the American government’s reaction to it. The government fears upsetting oil relations with the Saudis, prefaced through a clever opening CGI historical timeline sequence. Thus they refuse to dispatch forensic investigators to the scene. FBI special agent Fleury, however, has other plans. Through a clever bribe using the media as an ally, he smuggles a four-man team into the country against the Attorney General’s wishes, which immediately ignites tension between the team and Saudi officials, as well as the team and the mysterious Saudi bombers who have made them the next target.
While the acting by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and their supporting cast is exemplary, what makes The Kingdom work and feel fresh is a distinct line drawn between the CSI-inspired investigation and the closing 15-20 minute car chase, shootout and hostage rescue. I was legitimately on the edge of my chair with white knuckles the entire time, truly not knowing who was going to live and who was not. It’s a little far-fetched to believe the outcome that has “Hollywood convenience” stamped all over it, but the ride and subsequent clashes in beliefs are worth a little suspension of disbelief.
Universal’s high-definition presentation of The Kingdom unfortunately isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off. Visually the cinematography and VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer are great when Berg has the camera shoved in actor’s faces. Detail is crisp, and the colors, though mostly muted, are spot-on. Yet as the eye wanders toward the background, especially darker backgrounds, the image tends to break up here and there, with obvious compression artifacts and even some black crush. Elsewhere in the numerous outdoor shots, dusty and drab sets make it all but near impossible to film a crisp picture. Aside from the background compression issues, the artistic choice by the director and cinematographer appear to be the main culprits in delivering an eye-popping picture.
A lack of “pop” in the picture is understandable given the setting, but the lack of “punch” in the soundtrack is unforgivable. There are numerous bomb and RPG-ignited explosions in the film’s opening and closing act, and all of them fail to envelop the room with life-like audio. Surrounds get the shaft as well, failing to truly come alive even during the most intense gunfire sequences. The blame here lies mostly on Universal’s decision to utilize a 1.5mpbs Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix instead of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio, as well as a lack of attention paid to surround channels by the sound mixers.
Universal released The Kingdom on Combo Format HD-DVD alongside another new theatrical title, Eastern Promises. Where Universal shunned Eastern Promises in the special features department, they spared no expense to ensure The Kingdom would hit shelves a fully loaded package sporting all of the format’s finest features.
Exclusive to HD-DVD are a trio of U-Control features and Web Connectivity to Universal’s online portal, where a poll awaits. The first U-Control feature, The Mission Dossier, provides textual facts on the Middle East and other topics relevant to the film via selectable tabs. It’s a simple expansion beyond the film’s opening credits timeline which compliments the story nicely. Picture-In-Picture is as expected; snippets of behind-the-scenes footage piggybacking the action on screen. The last U-Control feature, Character by Character, is the one not to miss. Putting the viewer in the director’s chair, the camera can be switched between each of the four FBI agents through the entire chaotic finale without ever leaving the film. Features like this are what really differentiate high-def home video from standard DVD.
The next two featurettes, Constructing the Freeway Sequence (18:15) and Creating the Kindgom (35:33), offer an amazingly comprehensive look at how the film was shot both on location in Saudi Arabia and in the Arizona suburbs. The freeway sequence piece, in particular, follows each of the different car stunts filmed to piece together the final composite shot, from every camera Berg set up. Most impressive is the absence of clips from the finished film to fill up time. No second is wasted in giving viewers an unedited peek at the set.
The remaining special features are lighter in content and passable for all but viewers enamored by the film. They consist of a trio of Deleted Scenes (11:02, HD), History of the Kingdom: Interactive Timeline similar to the opening credits, and The Mission Dossier: Surveillance providing rough animatics of several action sequences. Also included are Universal’s customary My Scenes bookmarking.
The closing seconds of The Kingdom depict both sides of the war-ravaged coin, a fitting conclusion sure to stick with viewers long after the credits roll. This is one of those movies where high-def aficionados need to set aside their stringent presentation beliefs, sit back, and enjoy a compelling two hours of film and well rounded special features that accompany it.
- Score: 8.5