David O. Russell's "Three Kings," which makes its Blu-ray DVD debut this week, was a heralded member of the cinematic class of 1999, the pre-millennial groundswell that appeared to usher in a new golden age of American filmmaking. Many of that year's most striking movies — among them Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," David Fincher's "Fight Club," Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" and Alexander Payne's "Election" — were risk-taking works from youngish directors operating within the confines of the Hollywood or Indiewood systems.
Among that generation of American auteurs, many of whom have amply delivered on their early promise, Russell remains the most elusive figure, partly because of the relative scarcity of his output. In the years since "Three Kings," only one of his films, "I [Heart] Huckabees" (2004), has made it to theaters. A philosophical farce drawing equally on French existentialism and Zen Buddhism, it was one of the bolder American films of the past decade but earned mixed reviews and did little business.
Of late, Russell has made the news mainly for reports and leaked videos of on-set flare-ups and for his involvement in troubled productions. "Nailed," a political comedy with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel, stalled several times and remains unfinished (Russell has abandoned the project for good). "The Fighter," a boxing movie starring Mark Wahlberg, went through a series of personnel changes before landing with Russell, and will finally open this December.
Russell is a tricky filmmaker to peg also because he lacks the obvious signatures of an auteur, though his movies are clearly personal, even eccentric. Instead of nurturing themes and obsessions, he thrives on reinvention. To the extent that there is a connective thread running through his work, it may be that he seeks out comedy in unlikely places, where most others fear to venture or never think to look.
His 1994 feature debut, "Spanking the Monkey," is a supremely queasy Freudian comedy about mother-son incest. The more conventional follow-up, the screwball ensemble piece "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), milked laughs from complications surrounding adoption and adultery. Moving beyond the domestic sphere, "Three Kings" is a dizzying — and often alarmingly funny — combat thriller about the moral confusion of war. And "I [Heart] Huckabees" can be seen as a comedy about the biggest subject of all: the very meaning of human existence.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, "Three Kings" establishes its unnerving tone right off the bat. As an Iraqi man with a white flag and a gun emerges atop a sand dune, one American soldier asks: "Are we shooting people or what?" No one knows, so he fires. Prone to mood swings and shifts in filmmaking styles (from in-your-face vérité to flamboyantly surreal), "Three Kings" may be a comedy, but time and again, the laughs catch in your throat. Russell said he wanted to make a war movie in which every bullet counts — and they do, most literally of all in a gruesome visualization of a bullet's path as it rips through flesh, blood and internal organs.
At loose ends after the war is declared over, four American soldiers ( George Clooney, Ice Cube, Wahlberg and Jonze) set out in search of Kuwaiti gold, following a treasure map discovered in the rear end of a captured Iraqi. The action adventure doesn't go as planned, as the men stumble into the violent mess the war has left behind: the insurgency that the Americans had encouraged is being crushed by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
"Three Kings" asserts the decency of its American heroes even as it lashes out against U.S. foreign policy. Russell bluntly avows that the war was fought for oil, most explicitly in a scene where Wahlberg's character is force-fed a mouthful of crude by an Iraqi officer.
In 2004, with the U.S. mired in a second Iraq war, Russell made a documentary follow-up to "Three Kings," a short called "Soldiers Pay," featuring interviews with veterans and Iraqi refugees about the emotional and moral toll of war. But there is something liberating about the vantage point of "Three Kings," completed eight years after the first President Bush declared Operation Desert Storm a success, and nearly four years before the second President Bush ordered the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The movie benefits from an offhand complexity and irreverence that has largely eluded even the best of the current Iraq-themed movies. More than relevant, it's one of the defining antiwar films of our time, a scathing and sobering chronicle of U.S. misadventures in the Middle East.