After much inner struggle, I have to be honest and admit that I really don't know what to do about The Kingdom. On the one hand, in the moments that work it's devastating, but I can't shake the sense that it's all a little sleazy and exploitative.

At its heart, it's a film about the tortured relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, endured by both countries only because of the oil trade; but so much else comes into play to vie for our attention that the original thread is very quickly lost. Still, we get one hell of a great opening credits sequence out of the deal, quickly recapping the history of US-Saudi relations since the kingdom's founding in 1932, by use of something like a CGI slideshow that darts from one monochromatic image to another, all designed in a style that calls to mind the Soviet avant-garde art of the 1920s.

So on paper, we're primed for a political thriller that we never quite get. Oh, it's a thriller all right, and it's political all right, but in a different way. The film proper opens with a terrible daytime suicide attack on a compound housing American civilians employed by the oil companies in Saudi Arabia, and from that moment on the film is much more about the War on Terror than it ever will be about complex geopolitical machinations. Insofar as there are such machinations in the film, their only purpose is to make life temporarily harder for the righteous FBI agents who want only to land in-country, run an all-access investigation, and finally, bring the perpetrators to justice in the name of the US.

I guess you could call this American exceptionalism, but that's not exactly the vibe that the film gives off. For one thing, it's not very rousing or "rah-rah"; it is in fact brutal and often unpleasant, particularly in an extended action sequence at the end.

But the end is the end, and most of the middle is not unlike CSI on steroids. The main part of the film follows Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his elite team of investigators - Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) - as they comb the city of Riyadh looking for clues and terrorists while being stymied by the Saudi government, in the maddeningly cheerful form of Col. Faris Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). It's a curious thing that Barhom gives the best performance in the film, by which I mean the only one that consists of more than one note, and yet his role is palpably that of the token Arab good guy, whose existence is only really justified in how he helps out the Americans.

Damn, there's that crypto-exceptionalism again! Well, it's really hard not to notice that our heroes are set against purposefully anonymous Saudi bureaucrats and a shadowy, unseen terrorist mastermind. Not exactly a recipe for moral ambiguity, and indeed moral ambiguity there is not: the villains are cannon fodder, nothing more, and the agent's quest a act of wholly justified vengeance. That's more than a little bit irresponsible in the current world, although I suppose that nobody ever got rich by betting on Hollywood to be "responsible." At any rate, it's sheer wish fulfillment for everybody who is cross that the war in Iraq has gone so damn stalemate-ey, red meat for the dwindling numbers who still believe in "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here."

Except it kind of isn't, because the protracted scenes of violence are not exhilarating bloodbaths, they are nasty and grisly and relentless, with a dizzying handheld aesthetic that recalls Paul Greengrass's Bourne movies, or more particularly his United 93. It's uncomfortable violence that does not thrill so much as it disgusts, although at the screening I attended, people did applaud at the terrorists' deaths, so perhaps I just credit the American people with too much taste. I can only therefore report my own response, which was to feel like I had been beaten up one side of the head and down the other with a wooden beam.

I do wonder whether Peter Berg (he of Very Bad Things and The Rundown) is a self-aware enough director to realise what he has done: he has created a film clearly meant to give us a thrill of vicarious, vicious joy when we watch the Muslim hordes gunned down (this is the most direct 9/11 revenge fantasy I've ever seen, not that it's an overly large subgenre), but he then makes said gunning down as disorienting and alienating and awful to watch as possible. I'll grant that it makes the film quite a bit more interesting than it might have been, and the action sequences have a rawness to them that transcends the specifics of the story. It's close to as shaken up as any film has made me all year, and it makes me want very badly to call this a great movie.

But then there's the movie leading up to that outburst, which is not simply slow-moving (indeed, ths slowness works rather well to ratchet up the tension), but unengaging; the four agents are not particularly compelling characters, with Foxx in particular given nothing interesting to do and Garner doing an especially bad job of making her interesting moments work. Frankly, besides casting a suspicious eye on every Middle Easterner that appears on screen, it doesn't feel to me like the middle of the film does much of anything: it has no particular story, it is not especially stylish and it's not emotionally resonant. I'm kind of horrified to wonder if this was meant to be the meaty part of the film: the part where the inherent differences between the two countries was allowed to bubble up to the surface, and the film turned into the political essay that it flirts with throughout its first half. If so, it doesn't work. Instead, the Saudis come across as some sort of exotic zoo animals that dare to put down American militarism, and we learn that turning a massively complex international pas de deux into a black and white moral issue isn't just offensive, it's also a little bit tedious.