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THREE KINGS(director/writer: David O. Russell; screenwriter: based on a story by John Ridley; cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel; editor: Robert K. Lambert; cast: George Clooney (Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Sgt.Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Nora Dunn (Adrianna Cruz), Cliff Curtis (Amir), Saïd Taghmaoui (Captain Saïd), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Jamie Kennedy (Walter); Runtime: 114; Warner Brothers; 1999)
“A brave film, one that has a surrealistic feel to it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 is put to celluloid and made into this action-packed adventure story and intelligent political satire of the once seemingly popular war. It would supposedly regain the American sense of “feeling good” about itself that needed resurrection after the Vietnam debacle. This was a war that made Americans proud of the technology developed such as: smart bombs and of how casualty-free and quickly the war was won; a war that was watched on TV by millions.

David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey/Flirting With Disaster) sets his contemporary story in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, as he lampoons the motives behind U.S. foreign policy, questioning what President Bush’s war really accomplished, even if it did succeed in liberating Kuwait. He has made a stylishly unconventional film. But its story fits a traditional anti-war Hollywood movie, similar to films such as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. This one has a potent bite just like the others, but maybe because it is filmed so soon after the bubble for American success has burst over the war it seems more delicious. With Saddam Hussein still in power and the fact that there are American military personnel still in harm’s way at a great cost to this country, this allows the film’s satire to seem sharp. It makes one wonder who the Americans helped with this war aside from some rich Kuwaitis. What the film clearly shows is that the bulk of the Iraqi people, not the inner circle of the dictator, seem to be bearing the brunt of the war’s dire consequences.

The story begins as three Army reservists called up to fight the war, but not seeing any action, come upon a map of hidden gold bullions stolen by Saddam Hussein from the Kuwaitis. It is stuffed up a prisoner’s crack in his butt and after getting the map, they decide to go after the gold on their own. They are: Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), who sees this as an opportunity to provide his wife and infant back home with some financial security; Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze-director of Being John Malkovich), a high school drop-out who wants to be like Troy, so much so that he would follow him anywhere; and, Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), someone who believes he can put a magical circle of Jesus around himself and be protected from any harm. Their plans change when a cynical veteran of the Special Forces, Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), who is about to retire from the service, gets wind of what these men have found and he takes charge of the smelly situation. The three become a quartet of rogues.

These self-seeking fortune hunters, who have forgotten about their Army duty in favor of doing what’s best for themselves, decide that they should have the stolen gold instead of Saddam or Kuwait. They go out in a stolen Humvee across the Iraqi desert to find the hidden bunker that holds the gold and they find the gold alright, but they also find Iraqi rebels intent on rising up against Saddam. Saddam’s Army is busy putting down the rebellion. It’s an uprising in which President Bush is sending out mixed messages: on the one hand, he tells the Iraqis to revolt and America will help; but, on the other hand, he decides not to help them and does nothing to stop Saddam from killing those who were foolish enough to believe the American president. This helps these rogues to take advantage of the situation, as Saddam’s loyalists look the other way when they take the gold.

The Americans escape with forty million in gold–as the Iraqi soldiers let them go unharmed–but they get caught in a cross-fire between the rebels and Saddam’s soldiers. The Americans wrestle with their consciences as Captain Gates, their philosophical and respected leader, changes his mind and suddenly becomes altruistic and helps the rebels get out of harm’s way, despite the fact that they now can’t escape with the gold as Saddam’s men go after them. They also capture Troy in the shootout.

Troy is brought back to the bunker of Saddam’s elite forces and is tortured, as the Iraqi soldier (Saïd Taghmaoui) tells him that America only fights for the oil and have done a tremendous amount of killing and mutilation (including killing his child and crippling his wife) with its bombing policy; and, for him to believe that the Americans have come to the aid of Kuwait for the sake of justice is laughable. If justice alone was the reason for their help, then America would have to become a policeman for the world and would always be coming to the aid of victimized countries. He compares what his country did in stealing the gold, with what Troy and his group are now selfishly doing for themselves.

The premise of the film is excellent; the story succeeds as both an entertaining action film and as a searingly funny black comedy, it is even effective as a valuable history lesson. There are plenty of odd touches that give the film a fresh feel to it such as: an exploding cow; footballs that explode; a slow-motion shot tracing the horrific damage a bullet does when it enters the body, as it shows that most victims die from sepsis that results from a release of bile into the bloodstream; and, finally, to the scene of a rebel bunker full of stolen Kuwaiti luxury cars being comically bartered to the Americans by the rebel’s chief officer.

The actors are brilliantly cast and make up for the lack of depth of their characters by giving engaging performances: George Clooney is both heroic and devilish, presenting a commanding stature for his authoritative role. Wahlberg, as the naive all-American boy with a dark side to him, serves the film well. Jonze is a real hoot and comes across as the kind of dim soldier whom it is easy to feel sorry for and not get too upset with him over his obvious mental defects. Ice Cube is solid. Nora Dunn as Adrianna Cruz is a CNN-type of reporter, out for the hard facts of the war; but, she is given the run-around by the military brass. Her story captures the essence of this so-called ‘media war’ in all its gamesmanship. What results is a brave film, one that has a surrealistic feel to it, with some mortifying comedy dished out and some serious questions being raised about a war that seemingly won’t come to a proper conclusion anytime too soon. Russell explores a recent part of American history that surprisingly hasn’t been touched upon by too many other films.

The war is covered with more personal detail than I got from watching it on CNN. I feel that the filmmaker has caught the mood of most of the soldiers who don’t understand the politics of the war and just want to go home in one piece, of the career brass who are in it for promotions, the media reporters who want to not only get the story but be the first one to get it, and the politicians who can find a rational for whatever they do. The film ultimately shows that anything is possible in the amoral climate of a dictatorship and of a consumer country out to protect its own interest. The Three Kings turns out not to be a film about the wise men from the Bible, as the title alludes to, but is about four typical Americans who must make difficult choices that go against their grain of nature. The reward for the audience is seeing an exciting film that is beautifully photographed, in addition to seeing a film that has a grave purpose in its comedy.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”