Peter Berg's fast-talking and unnecessarily complicated tale of Middle East terrorism is more smoke and mirrors than meat. It may come on like SYRIANA, but it boils down to little more than a diverting episode of "CSI: Riyadh."
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Gunmen disguised as Saudi police storm the Al Rahmah compound, home away from home to hundreds of civilian employees of a U.S. oil company, and open fire on unarmed men, women and children during an afternoon softball game. Hours later the real attack on the real targets occurs: A massive suicide car bomb goes off, killing many of the first responders — including FBI legal attache Francis Manner (Kyle Chandler). Back in Washington, Manner's FBI colleague, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), is preparing to fly to Riyadh and head an investigation into the attack when he encounters unexpected interference from Attorney General Gideon Young (Danny Huston). Increasingly nervous about riling the Saudi government by putting any more U.S. feet on Saudi ground, the Justice Department is now willing to consider the whole affair a Saudi-on-Saudi crime and leave it to local Saudi police and the notoriously brutal National Guard. Undaunted and with the tacit approval of the bureau chief (Richard Jenkins), Fleury arranges for a secret flight out of Washington with the understanding that his team — bomb technician Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics expert Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and intelligence man Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) — will only assist and advise the jealously guarded Saudi investigation. Upon arrival, they're placed under the strict supervision of Saudi police colonel Faris Al Ghazi (PARADISE NOW's Ashraf Barhom), who confines them to makeshift quarters in the Al Rahmah gymnasium and refuses to allow them to visit the by-now contaminated crime scene unaccompanied. Soon, however, Fleury wins Al Ghazi's trust and together they gather enough evidence to suggest that the attack was the work of Abu Hansan, a virulently anti-Western Wahhabi extremist who's called for violent jihad against the Western business concerns whose history with the Saudi royal family is nearly as old as the 75-year-old kingdom itself.
Beginning with a precredit timeline that rips through the 70 years of Saudi history leading up to 9/11, the film's first 20 minutes is a barrage of incidental detail: interagency rivalries, Justice Department politics, a plot involving domestic funding for terrorist attacks on foreign soil, and a Judith Miller-style Washington Post journalist played by Frances Fischer. There's quite a bit of sharp, snappy dialogue, but screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned Robert Redford's upcoming U.S.-in-Afghanistan epic LIONS FOR LAMBS, frontloads his script with so much extraneous chatter that thriller-savvy moviegoers will expect the whole thing to explode in some rich and deliciously complex conspiracy. It doesn't, and the grueling 20-minute chase through a Riyadh apartment complex, shot with a swishing, shaky handheld camera, doesn't compensate. Anyone paying close attention may feel their hard work has been for naught, and be more than a little offended by the ironic coda that's as pat as it is unwarranted.
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