Three Kings

Friday October 1, 1999

     You could argue it's a pity the three-hunks-looking-heroic poster art for "Three Kings" looks so conventional, because this Iraqi war scam gone awry adventure extravaganza is anything but. You could say that, but you'd be wrong. Or would you?
     Actually, the truth is that like the best efforts coming out of the big studios these days--and this is definitely one of them--the ambitious "Three Kings" is Hollywood with a twist, demonstrating how far a film can stray from business as usual and still deliver old-fashioned satisfactions. Unexpected in its wicked humor, its empathy for the defeated and its political concerns, this is writer-director David O. Russell's nervy attempt to reinvent the war movie and a further step in the evolution of an audacious and entertaining filmmaker.
     Just as Russell's first film, the modest, Oedipal-themed "Spanking the Monkey," gave no hint of what he'd accomplish with the effervescent, hugely comic "Flirting With Disaster," so "Disaster" doesn't really prepare us for the scope of "Kings." Traditional in its conclusions, but anything but along the way, this film gives its protagonists and its audience considerably more than anyone anticipated.
     "Three Kings" begins as the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq is ending in March 1991. Its opening line of dialogue--a question by Army Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), plaintively wondering, with an Iraqi soldier in his sights, "Are we shooting people or what?"--perfectly encapsulates the bizarre uncertainty of a military action that plays at first like an extended fraternity party with automatic weapons thrown into the mix.
     It's Barlow, assisted by worshipful hillbilly high school dropout Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), who discovers a key document hidden in the posterior of a captured soldier and thereafter known, via the film's scabrous sense of humor, as "the Iraqi ass map." On it are the directions to some of Saddam's secret bunkers, where all manner of spoils from the ill-starred invasion of Kuwait are likely hidden.
     Also finding out about the map are God-fearing Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and world-weary Special Forces Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney), who thinks the document is the key to locating millions in gold bullion Saddam removed from Kuwait. "Bullion? You mean like those little cubes you make soup from?" Vig wonders. No, private, not like those.
     Teaming up to raid the bunkers and get rich quick, these cynical, self-involved and opportunistic individuals initially come off as the usual amoral heroes for the modern age. As they head off in a Hum-Vee with Homer Simpson plastered on the front grill and explosive-filled footballs in the rear, they, and we, can be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a tough guy joy ride, a quintessentially macho adventure yarn.
     But writer-director Russell (who spent 18 months researching and writing the script, with story credited to John Ridley), has no intention of letting us off that easy. Yes, we're meant to enjoy the excitement, but not to the exclusion of knowing the cost, not to mention a whole lot of other things Russell has on his mind.
     For the first thing that happens to the guys is a collision with the Iraqi civilian population and the gradual realization that internecine warfare is going on between those who naively heeded the U.S. call to rise up against Saddam and brutal government forces who are taking advantage of America's abrupt avoidance of all things Iraqi.
     This chaotic war within a war, an irrational free-for-all where tankers filled with milk are treated as lethal weapons, is vividly captured by the high-energy, frenetic visual style used by Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Brief, oddball sequences take us inside the human body to show exactly the kind of damage a bullet inflicts, and Sigel even utilizes three different film stocks to convey a variety of emotional states, including a grainy, disorienting use of Ektachrome, a film usually found in tourist's cameras.
     Making the transition from "Flirting With Disaster" is Russell's trademark sense of humor, his feeling for the absurdly comic in the most potentially horrifying situations. Who else would put a glimpse of the Rodney King beating on Iraqi TV, or be able to fashion an unlikely running joke about whether it's Lexus or Infiniti that offers a convertible model.
     Also intact is Russell's gift for eccentric characters, like Pvt. Vig, an excellent first acting job for video director Jonze, whose debut feature, "Being John Malkovich," opens later this month. Minor players like Walter (Jamie Kennedy), a soldier who wears night vision goggles during the day, and TV newswoman Adriana Cruz (Christiane Amanpour look-alike Nora Dunn) are treated with as much care as audience surrogates Barlow and Elgin. Especially effective is Clooney who perfectly conveys the combination of capability, authority and a touch of larceny the film insists on.
     Russell is also someone who enjoys being provocative, a trait that comes out in the disquieting character of Iraqi Capt. Sa'id (Said Taghmaoui), a sympathetic villain whose employment of torture as a means of political education is daring and effective.
     Though the film's title nominally derives from the biblical three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem, it echoes, intentionally or not, the names of other pertinent films. There's "The Man Who Would Be King," also about Westerners who thought to get rich off of native peoples, and John Ford's "Three Godfathers," about tough guys who have a change of heart in the desert. Off-and-on cynical and sentimental, Russell's darkly comic tale shows how much can be done with familiar material when you're burning to do things differently and have the gifts to pull that off.

Three Kings, 1999. R, for graphic war violence, language and some sexuality. In association with Village Roadshow Pictures/Village-A.M. Film Partnership, a Coast Ridge/Atlas Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director David O. Russell. Producers Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell. Executive producers Kelley Smith-Wait, Gregory Goodman, Bruce Berman. Screenplay David O. Russell. Story John Ridley. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor Robert K. Lambert. Costumes Kym Barrett. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Catherine Hardwicke. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. George Clooney as Archie Gates. Mark Wahlberg as Troy Barlow. Ice Cube as Chief Elgin. Spike Jonze as Conrad Vig. Nora Dunn as Adriana Cruz. Jamie Kennedy as Walter.

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