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‘Kingdom’ comes on strong

But takes the easy way out.

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If we've learned anything from Dumb King George's ongoing misadventures in Middle East imperialism, it's this: The situation is much, much more complicated than any of us could have ever imagined. Sunnis? Shiites? Why can't they just come in one flavor, like us Christians? (Yes, that's a joke).

The differences between Islam and the West — and why we are never, ever going to be able to work them out, especially at the point of a gun — are surely nothing you can capture in a presidential speech, much less a Hollywood movie. Still, director Peter Berg gives it a valiant effort (for awhile at least) in his new film “The Kingdom.” Part message movie and part shoot-'em-up, “The Kingdom” starts strong, but soon devolves into yet another bad “Die Hard” clone, with the patented Good Americans (and the one Saudi With A Heart of Gold) facing the dastardly terr'ists, who Hate Us Because of Our Freedom. The result, sadly enough, is yet another oversimplified recruiting poster for George Bush's Global War on Terror™.

Jamie Foxx stars as FBI agent Ronald Fleury. After a brutal terrorist attack on an all-American enclave of oil workers in Saudi Arabia (they were even playing baseball at the time, for God's sake!), Fleury petitions his bosses to go over and bring the evildoers to justice. When the higher-ups say no for fear of upsetting the powerful Saudi royal family, Foxx goes under the radar, hopping a flight to the Middle East with a hand-picked team of cliches, including designated vessel for feminist outrage Janet Mayes (a pair of boobies with Jennifer Garner attached), designated Jewish guy/comic relief Adam Levitt (Jason Bateman), and designated Texan/explosives-genius-with-funny-accent Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper). Once on the ground, the team soon meets up with their contact and babysitter, Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). After slowly winning Al Ghazi over with friendly chat (“You've got kids? Me too! What a coincidence!”), Fleury is able to spring his team from what would have been a week of staged, do-nothing photo-ops in order to go after the bomb maker and his evil henchmen.

While “The Kingdom” succeeds as a fast-paced action flick, after four years of war in the Middle East setting an action movie in the region not only smacks of opportunism but of propagandizing. Far be it from me to say what movies filmmakers should make, but I was hoping that — given the complex, dangerous, confused relationship that exists between Islam and America in the wake of 9/11, Gitmo, tribunals, the Patriot Act and a couple hundred thousand Iraqi civilians dead — the Iraq War would at least sire something more introspective and important than “Rambo Versus the Towelheads.”

David Koon

‘King of Kong'

I'm clearly not alone in my deep abiding fondness for documentaries about nerds and nerdly endeavors. Though earnest the-end-is-nigh documentaries are swiftly supplanting them as the flavor of the month, cinéma nérdité never seems to fail with the crowds. Just take at least two geeks, drop them in the middle of an OCD-fueled competition, turn on the cameras, and watch the quirkiness fly as if shot out of a homemade potato cannon.

“The King of Kong” follows this script to the letter, and while it doesn't come close to breaking any new stylistic ground, it does play those elements aptly, and throws in a good deal of early-'80s retro geek chic to boot. Formulaic, but fun. And it even has video games.

Donkey Kong, specifically, which classic gamers generally dub the most difficult video game ever devised — the average game lasts only about a minute, and only three people have ever been officially recognized as having reached the final “kill” stage. “The King of Kong” chronicles one man's fearful quest to beat the 24-year-old record set by the undisputed Kong King, one Billy Mitchell.

However, it soon becomes more than that for Steve Wiebe, our hero. Wiebe, who's suffered a string of bad luck as long as the line to the change machine, turns to breaking the Donkey Kong world record as a means of accomplishing something, anything in his life that doesn't involve crushing last-minute defeat. I'll spoil nothing by telling you he does exactly that, pretty early on in the film. But though his score is legitimate, the official gaming hall of fame rejects it, and Wiebe finds himself undertaking the Herculean task of proving himself and his score to one decidedly insular and skeptical geek community.

Along the way he'll come up against his opponent's toadies and machinations, high-pressure live competitions, fuzzy videotape, plane fare he can hardly afford, a weary wife, the Guinness Book of World Records, someone named “Mr. Awesome,” and a kid who insists loudly on having his butt wiped. All the while, Billy Mitchell lurks in the background, intent on protecting his legacy (and ego) at nearly any cost.

It's a real hoot, engaging and funny enough to make up for a lack of any real inventiveness. It's not quite the ride “Spellbound” was, but it comes close enough to satisfy and may leave you checking eBay for working machines.

Matthew Reed

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