Three Kings (1999)

Three KingsStarring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, and Jamie Kennedy.
Written by John Ridley (story) and David O. Russell.
Directed by David O. Russell.

Grade: B+

Review by Jeff Vorndam.

The war movie as comedy is nothing new. Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H mined the territory trenchantly years ago. More recently, Life Is Beautiful uneasily hunted for laughs in the shadow of the Holocaust. There is an innate absurdity to war though that lends itself to madcap schemes and anarchic blends of humor and horror. So it is that David O. Russell enters the fray with Three Kings, a highly entertaining tale set during the Persian Gulf War that mingles political commentary and brutal reality with thrilling action sequences and snappy patter. This is all filmed with hip panache using reversal stock to produce a grainy gritty image that is compelling and visceral. Three Kings nearly rivals Run Lola Run in its ferocious immediacy. Scenes hurtle by like surface-to-air missiles until we arrive at a more staid Hollywood ending.

Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the quest for wartime spoils drives the story. Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) comes across a map in a disgustingly singular manner. This map is believed to provide the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein’s secret bunkers, where he naturally stashes piles of riches (in this case, everything from Rolexes and cell phones to gold bouillon). Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Jonze) are in on the plan to sneak away and load themselves up with loot. The would-be three kings are discovered by Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (Clooney) who, rather than turn them in, takes over the operation with the four of them now splitting the bounty. These opening scenes are essentially comical. Each character is introduced with a typed title which glibly informs of their status: Gates is two weeks from retirement, Elgin’s tour-of-duty is a four week vacation from Detroit.George Clooney

The sideplot concerns the efforts of frustrated journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who has been given the run-around by Gates, a man with no time for a serious reporter when a bimbo one would do. In a war whose external outcome is supplied by the media, she is hellbent on finding fresh fodder for fueling her Pulitzer chances. She craves tragedy, heroism, greed–as long as it hasn’t already been scooped, it makes good copy. Gates instructs Walter Wogaman (Jamie Kennedy) to keep her occupied while he and the boys round up the gold, which he optimistically surmises will take them until lunchtime. For much of the movie then she is kept on the sidelines, and one of the flaws in the film is that her character (and the forces she represents) is never tied significantly to the story until needed as a fail-safe parachute in the denouement. There is much unexploited potential in the representation of the war’s aftermath via the media, but Three Kings chooses instead to focus on the moral quandaries of the four soldiers.

It isn’t long before the plunder plan goes awry. As the four soldiers (and we the audience) discover, just because there is a cease-fire does not mean the conflict is over. Rather, the conflict has moved internally thanks in no small part to one George Herbert Walker Bush’s urging that the people of Iraq overthrow their dictator. President Bush neglected to mention that the United States would not be providing any support in this activity though, and the people of Iraq find themselves captured, tortured, and killed as political dissidents. Still, the arrival of these four American soldiers brings them hope. Perhaps they have come to liberate the political prisoners and call for reinforcements to overthrow the Army! Imagine their disappointment when they learn the Americans are only interested in gold. To make matters thornier, the Iraqi army guys aren’t painted with the evil maniac brush. For once, they get to have a back story. By humanizing the factions involved, Russell has brilliantly upped the ante during the suspense sequences. Every death now seems tragic; every approaching vehicle seems threatening. Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg

The moral centerpiece of the film is an interrogation scene in which Barlow, now captured by the Iraqi Army, is forced to confront the horrors which American greed and reckless apathy have wrought on the denizens of Iraq. Barlow’s interrogator gets him to feel some of the pain the Iraqis have endured. In typical movie-script fashion, this one scene is enough for Barlow to perform an about-face on his moral priorities. His greatest concern is no longer gold, but rescuing the other political prisoners and providing safe passage for them to Iran. At least Barlow has a scene that allows him to see the bigger picture (and Wahlberg plays it well); the others have no such impetus, and their motivations for discarding avarice are somewhat murkier. It’s assumed that they are disturbed by the carnage (they had no previous skirmishes) and embittered in the process. Gates however appears as a world-weary cynic right from the start. We are given no background on him. What then impels his change of heart? One suspects the machinery of the fast-moving plot is designed to mow over this detail, and it does. The film leaps from crisis to crisis without ever getting ridiculous. As a result, questions about Gates’ motives are forgotten until after you’ve left the theater.

Russell’s style is large plus to the effectiveness of Three Kings. The camera whizzes and whooshes fluidly, like the bullet from a sniper. In one bravura sequence, a bullet is followed as it enters a body and travels to the gooey insides where it contaminates the organs around it. The editing escalates its pace, performing the function of a drum roll, in tense sequences involving tear gas and an air decompression valve. Parts of Three Kings are more gripping than any other movie this year. Parts of the film are also gut-bustingly funny. Spike Jonze (director of the upcoming Being John Malkovich) plays the Billy Bob Thornton hick role well. The scene where we learn his “day job” elicited a loud guffaw from me. The other actors all fare well, especially Mark Wahlberg, who proves that his performance in Boogie Nights was no fluke. George Clooney is smooth as usual, though less unflappable than he’s been in previous roles, which is good. Ice Cube is solid like frozen water in an underwritten role.

In the end, Three Kings opts for a safe and somewhat soft resolution that is not as satisfying as the preceding 110 minutes. It would have been difficult to arrive at any other outcome however, because the point is to underline the American greed that can barter people’s lives. Overall, the effluvial humor undermines the seriousness. It’s often humor for humor’s sake, which makes for an enjoyable film but softens its blows against the governments which control the people on either side of the Gulf conflict. We should be thankful for whatever bones Hollywood throws us, I suppose. A lesser film would opt for all-out action or weigh itself down with self-important profundity. In its way, Three Kings is highly effective–an amusing yet thoughtful adventure-comedy… a must see.

Review © October 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© 1999 Warner Bros.

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