A New Star Holds the Keys to 'The Kingdom'
Friday, September 28, 2007
Watching "The Kingdom," we're supposed to be taken up with Jamie Foxx as an FBI agent who defies his bosses and flies into Saudi Arabia, determined to identify the perpetrators of a terrorist attack. But instead, we're drawn to a lowly Saudi police official who has the job of guiding the American visitor through this complicated culture.
Who is this guy? As Foxx's handlers would surely tell you, their cellphones on speed dial to Universal Studios, that is not meant to happen. But Ashraf Barhoum, an Arab Israeli actor whom some will remember from "Paradise Now" and "The Syrian Bride," packs more subtle explosiveness into his moments than all the charisma Foxx can muster.
How do we measure allure? For Barhoum, it begins with the features -- a chiseled, stubbled face and a brown-eyed gaze that seems to ooze with organic conviction. It continues with the voice, charmingly accented, which the actor uses like a loaded weapon for subtext. He makes it a delicious joy to read the meaning under his character's carefully measured words. We get the sense that Col. Faris Al-Ghazi is achingly real -- an everyday Joe, if you like -- caught in extraordinary circumstances.
But as we watch Foxx, we mentally readjust to the popcorn-popping detachment we reserve for actors in big-time spectacles. Sure, he delivers his lines with professional, even sassy vigor, his dialogue peppered with enough information to suggest he has passions, memories and a family he loves. But compared with Barhoum, he's a two-dimensional hero in a wide-screen video game. The people who stand in Foxx's way -- ranging from an obnoxious U.S. attorney to the impassive Saudi royalty -- amount to virtual obstacles. Blow each one away, or outwit them with formulaic derring-do, and Rambo wins!
This sense of virtual reality emanates from the movie's very DNA. Essentially a police procedural with an exotic backdrop, "The Kingdom," which also stars Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, tries to fuse the testosteronal, vengeful patriotism of "Rambo" with the culturally ecological awareness of a "Syriana." Not surprisingly, the movie, directed by Peter Berg, feels inauthentic. We're supposed to feel like kicking foreigners' butts, but only after we have understood their culture.
This surely explains the Global Oil Politics for Dummies highlights reel at the beginning that segues from the Saudis' discovery of oil in the 1930s to the Iraq invasion. After it has dutifully contextualized us, "The Kingdom" moves to the kind of horrifying set piece designed to raise our most atavistic ire: a coordinated assault of gun attacks and explosions at an American compound in Riyadh that claims 200 lives.
But whether the movie is going for our primary emotions or subtler sensibilities, and as a vertiginous camera flits its way through death and destruction, we don't feel moved so much as sensorially bullied along. And we find ourselves treasuring those passing actorly moments with Barhoum as we would a lungful of nighttime desert air.
In a sense, Barhoum fulfills a hackneyed purpose, too -- as the audience's cultural welcoming committee. We've seen this archetypal role often enough before: Think Denzel Washington as Stephen Biko, the black freedom fighter who helps white journalist Donald Woods negotiate his hideaway world in "Cry Freedom," or Haing S. Ngor as the Cambodian journalist who ushers New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg through the mass slaughtering in "The Killing Fields."
But Barhoum emerges as an actor of compelling presence, not a brown-skinned foil. And he joins the burgeoning ranks of Mideastern and South Asian actors who are beginning to make their presence known on multiplex screens, such as Hiam Abbass and Omar Metwally in "Munich," Amr Waked in "Syriana," and Irfan Khan in "A Mighty Heart" and the upcoming "The Darjeeling Limited." Ultimately, we are beginning to respond to Farhoum -- and all of them -- not as exotic curiosities but residents of a changing world we'd all do better to understand.
The Kingdom (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and profanity.