(director: Peter Berg; screenwriter: Matthew Michael Carnahan; cinematographer: Mauro Fiore; editors: Kevin Stitt/Colby Parker Jr.; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Jamie Foxx (Ronald Fleury), Jennifer Garner (Janet Mayes), Jason Bateman (Adam Leavitt), Chris Cooper (Grant Sykes), Richard Jenkins (James Grace), Jeremy Piven (Damon Schmidt), Ashraf Barhom (Col. Faris Al Ghazi), Ali Suliman (Sgt. Haytham), Hezi Saddik (Abu Hamza), Danny Huston (Gideon Young); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Mann/Scott Stuber; Universal Pictures; 2007)
“Any serious messages get drowned out with the noise from the big explosions.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Actor turned filmmaker Peter Berg’s (“Friday Night Lights”/”The Rundown”) jingoistic political thriller is a high-octane actioner that mixes slick Rambo-like over-the-top heroics with the geopolitical sobriety of Syriana, but in the end any serious messages get drowned out with the noise from the big explosions to tell us anything fresh about America’s relationship with the princely ruling Saudis except for the mistrust on both sides and that the Wahhabi extremists wish all foreigners on their soil to be dead–especially the Americans. It makes out like we are so preoccupied with other things that we didn’t already know this, or if we did we shouldn’t forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. The frenetic screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan keeps the whodunit police procedural work sandwiched in between an explosive action-packed opening and closing. Any political info is dished out the same way cliff notes are used by those not wishing to read the entire classic book. The opening credits act as a quickie brush-up primer on how the kingdom started in 1932 in Saudi Arabia, how filthy rich and corrupt the ruling family became over striking oil, their deals with American oil companies and that the testy U.S.-Saudi relationship is built around our need for oil and their need for us as consumers. The film pessimistically concludes with a harsh reminder about the cycle of vengeance, as the children of both sides are instructed by their embittered elders that the other side is evil.
It’s about a team of elite FBI investigators–the gung-ho in your face but soft-spoken leader Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), the no-nonsense pathologist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), the Jewish jokester intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), and the likable folksy Southern forensics expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper)–trying to find terrorists in Saudi Arabia after about 100 oil company personnel (many women and children) were killed in a massive Sunday attack of their well-guarded housing compound in Riyadh that included suicide bombers and machine gun toting terrorists wearing Saudi army uniforms. One of the casualties is Fleury’s best friend from the FBI, and this pisses him off so much that he schemes to intimidate a Saudi prince in Washington to allow him at least five days to lead his FBI team to investigate the crime scene even though both the Saudis and the uptight State Department and the sniveling bully American attorney general (Danny Huston) deny the FBI permission. On the Saudi side, the police investigation is headed by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, Arab-Israeli actor), who under orders from his superiors is only to safeguard the Americans as their babysitter and hamstrings the investigation while the flunky U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia (Jeremy Piven) offers only resistance and sanitized photo ops. Things suddenly change when the enterprising Americans come up with hard evidence to show the location where the terrorist raid was planned; the colonel proves to be a good and honest cop who bonds with Fleury, and the investigation clears red tape hurdles and begins closing in on the bad dudes. The climactic scene, shot with a shaky hand-held camera, keeps things blurred and hard to view, as it turns into a fantasy of how the Americans should handle terrorists. The four FBI agents put down their scientific instruments and pick up their automatic weapons to invade a bad neighborhood and take the terrorists on in a firefight on their home turf. They kill all the bad guys, including the fingerless mastermind bomb maker, and come home as real “mission accomplished” heroes, something that we didn’t do after being attacked on 9/11; and though the film didn’t say it–one can reasonably draw the conclusion that the craven Washington insiders are possibly stand-ins for the inept President and rubber-stamping Congress. As unsatisfactory as this film is in its vacuous cartoonish action scenes and ugly exploitation cliff-hanger scene of Islamic terrorists preparing to behead Leavitt on video, it still had enough in its gas tank to be read as an indictment, though admittedly from a safe distance and quite mild, on the President and his misplaced war in Iraq.
As usual for action pics, the characters are mostly cardboard figures (the exception being the Saudi chief of police, Ashraf Barhom, whose touching performance steals this film and saves it from too many rocket launchers and Uzis).
REVIEWED ON 9/28/2007 GRADE: B-