Three Kings
Warner Bros., 1999
Directed by David O. Russell


By Jason Rothman

At the dawn of this decade, as the U.S. was trouncing Iraq, few would have guessed that Operation Desert Storm would inspire any great war movies. After all, the battle was easily won -- and audiences wouldn't pay to see what they'd already seen on CNN, right? But as the decade comes to a close, along comes Three Kings, a powerful, funny, original -- and, indeed great -- war film meant to rattle the public's perceptions of the Gulf War.

As the movie opens, it's the hours immediately after the war's end. While rounding-up Iraqi POW's, a small group of soldiers uncover a secret map that shows the location of a huge stash of Kuwaiti gold, hidden in a bunker behind enemy lines. Saddam stole the gold from Kuwait, these soldiers have no problem stealing the gold from Saddam and they go AWOL to do just that.

This renegade group is led by Archie Gates (George Clooney), a bitter, disillusioned Special Forces officer who's been relegated to babysitting a TV journalist. Also on board -- new father, Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg); his white trash friend Conrad Vig, played by MTV-auteur Spike Jonze (whose biggest claim to fame is directing the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video) and rapper Ice Cube as a soldier whose tour of duty constitutes an escape from his job as a baggage handler back in Detroit.

The team encounters little resistance once they reach the bunker. The Iraqi troops are too busy trying to squelch a rebel uprising. The U.S. had encouraged the people of Iraq to rise up and the American soldiers are surprised to find some actually have. The rebels think U.S. troops will support their effort -- instead, they get hung out to dry. Our heroes witness the Iraq troops slaughtering innocent women and children as they try to quell the revolutionaries. The Americans are thus left with a dilemma: make a quick getaway with the gold, or help the refugees.

Their choice -- to do the right thing -- forms the framework for director David O. Russell's scathing indictment of the Bush administration's hypocritical, self-serving foreign policy. The movie lobbies heavy criticism at a nation that acts as global policeman -- only when it suits our needs.

The soldiers' odyssey becomes a thesis on the sad, absurd politics of modern war. Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel film their desert landscapes in a grainy, overexposed style that lends a surreal air to the proceedings. As Steven Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan, Russell also endeavors to give us a harsh, disturbing picture of what real combat is like. In one bravura scene, a shootout literally becomes a slow-motion blur -- the camera pausing only to graphically record each bullet's impact. In other scenes, Russell gives us an X-ray vision view of what a bullet does to a human body. It will forever change your picture of war.

Some of the imagery comes off as cartoonish, and as Russell tries to drive home his point, the film does at times become heavy handed. Shots of an American soldier having crude oil poured down his throat, and a baby's crib being crushed by an American bomb are a bit over-the-top. But Russell is simply trying to combat Gulf War propaganda with some brilliant propaganda of his own. It's a daring move from a filmmaker known for taking risks -- Russell took on the topic of incest in his debut, Spanking the Monkey. In his follow-up, the hilarious Ben Stiller adoption comedy, Flirting With Disaster, he somehow convinced Mary Tyler Moore to flash her bra. Taking on the U.S. government is simply his next bold stroke.

Even bolder is how Russell seemlessly blends his serious complex political statement with moments of dark humor, searing drama, and some rollicking Rambo-style action sequences. It's hard for a movie to give you all that, but Three Kings does that and more. It's an outstanding piece of work.

(c) Copyright 1999

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