With the subversive political perspective of an Oliver Stone film ("JFK") and the visual stylings of Spike Lee ("Summer of Sam"), director David O. Russell ("Flirting with Disaster") makes an impressive splash with his first big-budget effort, "Three Kings". Set in the waning days of the Gulf War, "Three Kings" is a film that will be remembered for its manic energy and screwball humor, in addition to its incisive and unflattering portrayal of the reasons behind the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait. With great characters thrown into increasingly absurd situations, "Three Kings" heralds the arrival of a new filmmaker amidst the pantheon of Hollywood's best and brightest.
Are we shootin' people or what?
It is March of 1991, and at least officially, the Gulf War is over with a cease-fire having been declared. However, the rules of engagement are murky at best, and this is aptly illustrated in the film's opening scene, in which a surrendering Iraqi soldier is shot amidst the confusion. With the ground war having lasted a mere one hundred hours, many of the fresh-faced recruits have never tasted combat, and they hungrily take advantage of any opportunity to fire off a few rounds or have their picture taken with a dead enemy soldier. To them, the Gulf War is like a day at the beach, and not surprisingly, the atmosphere is euphoric, punctuated by a number of boisterous celebrations for the 'quick and easy' victory.
I'm talking about millions in Kuwaiti bullion.
You mean them little cubes that you put in hot water to make soup?
No, not the little cubes you put in hot water to make soup.
Amidst the jubilation, three U.S. soldiers recover a map hidden in the ass of an Iraqi soldier. Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg of "The Corruptor"), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube of "Anaconda"), and the dim-witted Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, director of the upcoming "Being John Malkovich") infer that the map reveals where Saddam's troops have hidden millions of Kuwaiti gold bullion. However, their discovery quickly catches the attention of Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney of "Out of Sight"), a world-weary seen-it-all career soldier two weeks from retirement. Rejecting all military protocol, Gates leads the three soldiers on an unauthorized excursion into Iraqi territory to recover the loot-- up before sunrise, and back by noon.
Bush told these people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support... they didn't. Now they're being slaughtered.
Unfortunately, their get-rich-scheme has a number of kinks in it. First, Gates must get an overzealous cable news reporter (Nora Dunn, who played a similar role in "Bulworth"), who he's been assigned to escort, off his back. Second, they must avoid raising the attention of the military brass, who are more interested in putting on a good show for the folks back at home.
However, these two obstacles are dwarfed in comparison to the human drama that unfolds before them when they are confronted by the remnants of Saddam's army. With a cease-fire in effect, the Iraqi troops pose no danger to Gates and his crew, as they are more concerned about quelling an uprising by pro-democracy elements that were encouraged by the U.S. to rise up against Saddam. At first, the four would-be looters use the internal turmoil between the Iraqi troops and the rebels as a smokescreen for their own illicit activities. But after witnessing the brutal measures of the Iraqi troops, Gates and company are compelled to act, placing themselves in danger by violating the cease-fire agreement to protect the rebels.
Saddam stole it from the sheikhs, and I have no problem stealing it from Saddam.
Operation Desert Storm has been the setting for a number of other films (the most prominent being "Courage Under Fire"), but until now, it has never been so maligned. The Gulf War portrayed in "Three Kings" is far-removed from the precision smart-bombing global-cop-makes-right viewpoint of popular culture-- instead, it is a cynical portrayal of a conflict born out of opportunity and avarice. All of the characters in the film are motivated by self-interest, and exist in a state of moral contradiction. A news reporter demonstrates sympathy for the ecological damage that the war has inflicted on the local wildlife, and then quickly does an about-face to chase down a new story, since the ecological viewpoint has already been done to death. The top brass at the U.S. military celebrate the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi oppression, yet are unwilling to stop the slaughter of anti-Saddam insurgents, who were encouraged by President Bush to rise up for a 'free Iraq'. Finally, Iraqi military bunkers are garishly cluttered with the spoils of war-- coffee makers, luxury cars, computers, and cellular phones.
We'll help these people first, and then we'll be on our way.
However, amidst the cynicism and doublespeak, there is a ray of hope. Providing a moral compass to the story are Gates and his crew, who quickly learn that a good image and good intentions are meaningless without the actions to back them up, and that millions of dollars in gold bullion is a small price to pay for a clear conscience. They are reluctant heroes, whose self-interest is gradually supplanted by self-sacrifice, as they escort a group of refugees to the Iraqi-Iranian border, using whatever means available to them.
Using documentary-style camera work, a bleached-out color scheme, and some arresting cutaways, the atmosphere that Russell creates is almost dreamlike, consistent with the moral ambiguity and absurdity of the story he tells. The story is also rife with unexpected humor that challenges the conventions that we have come to expect from the conventions of the typical war film-- where else can you see grown men taking practice shots at C4-loaded Nerf footballs, a POW using a cell-phone to call for help, or a comic demonstration on the destructive power of a landmine?
Performance-wise, there are few faults to be found here. Clooney uses his take-charge screen presence to full-effect, and despite some shortfalls in the script for defining some of his character's motivations, his conviction and change in moral latitude is believable and forceful. Wahlberg and Cube, who have been associated with less-than-stellar pictures in the past, deliver some career-defining and range-expanding performances that are certain to open doors for them in the future. Finally, Dunn and Jonze provide the film with some screwball comic relief, providing balance against the film's more grim moments.
Overall, "Three Kings" is a powerful film that is both well-conceived and brilliantly executed, transcending the trappings of your average war movie. With its excellent blend of comedy, action, drama, and insight, "Three Kings" can easily be counted among the year's best.