Leave it to oddball indie auteur David O. Russell to take his first studio commission and make a bang-up action flick that's also a dark comedy, a political soapbox, a human drama and condemnation of war and gun violence. And "Three Kings" is pretty solid wow on all counts.
The first motion picture to reflect on the fallacies of the Gulf War as we have reflected on failures in Vietnam for 25 years, Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster") has created a stealthily thought-provoking document that also kicks butt.
In the movie's first scene, the writer-director mixes black comedy with unsettling truths of confusion in wartime. Into a blanched desert panorama steps Mark Wahlberg as young Army sergeant, his M-16 trained on a single Iraqi waiving a white flag. The final cease fire has just been called, but the rank and file aren't yet sure yet what it means to them.
"Are we shooting?" he shouts at an off-screen soldier. "We are?" comes the reply. "That's what I'm asking," Wahlberg bellows, and after a disturbingly comical "Who's on first" exchange, he shrugs and shoots the surrendering soldier in the chest.
After a war's-over celebratory intro of the movie's other main characters -- a cocksure Special Forces captain (George Clooney), a staff sergeant "on vacation from Detroit" (Ice Cube), an ignoramus redneck private (Spike Jonze) and persistent, hard-bitten TV journalist (Nora Dunn) -- the story kicks into what looks like an action-adventure romp as these military mavericks pilfer an apparent treasure map (being smuggled in a captured Iraqi soldier's backside) and go AWOL, planning to plunder stolen Kuwaiti gold from Saddam Hussein's hidden bunkers.
But, of course, these anti-heroes get more than they bargained for when they come across a village where democratic rebels -- given false hope of American support by President Bush's encouragements of insurrection -- are being terrorized and tortured by Saddam's elite Republican Guard.
Ignoring their self-defeating orders for non-interference and scrubbing for the moment their dreams of ill-gotten social security, the suddenly scrupulous foursome take up the cause of getting the insurgents across the border to the safety of Iran -- which is, of course, easier said than done.
Writer-director Russell's constant balancing of his movie's many moods and messages is astoundingly adept. He pulls no punches in mockingly (and all too accurately) portraying a vast percentage of enlisted men as uneducated oafs. He skewers the media for its cynical, insatiable lust for ratings-boosting scooplets. He questions the two-faced policies of the Defense Department.
Russell leads his cast of under-appreciated, B-list talents to absorbing and deeply personal performances and accentuates their personalities with momentary flashes of their civilian lives peppered throughout early scenes.
On the technical side, the director employs creative post-production techniques to give "Three Kings" a unique visual signature. To emphasize the parching, dusty desert atmosphere, Russell bypassed part of the developing process, leaving a layer of silver on certain scenes that gives the film a blistering, bleached-out appearance.
But "Three Kings" is almost more subversive for remaining fun in spite of it serious and artistic overtones. Testosterone-driven action scenes are punched up by a cool strobe effect and punctuated with jazzy drum improv accompaniment.
Yet there are no scene-sweeping rounds of automatic ammunition fire, no bullets zipping through the screen with Foley artist aplomb. In fact, Russell uses gunfire sparingly, letting every shot reverberate subconsciously. He even takes a moment to detail what a bullet does to a human body, illustrating his point with a graphic, interior chest cavity cam when one of the characters gets shot.
He even personalizes his explosions. Instead of multiple-angle replays of ready fireballs, Russell keeps tight shots trained on characters as they're blown forward while the frame erupts in a violent orange cloud behind them.
Our crew of scruffy heroes does find the gold -- along with silverware and jewelry, a Circuit City's worth of electronics and appliances, not to mention a cache of stolen luxury cars, which they use in a climactic assault on a Republican Guard stronghold to rescue Wahlberg, who is captured early on when the treasure run is badly bungled.
Here again, Russell isn't shy about showing the worst of mankind's nature during war. Wahlberg is tortured, the charge from a car battery is repeatedly passed through his skull. But he never dehumanizes anyone ("Three Kings" is perhaps the most honorable portrayal of Arabs ever in an American movie) -- even Wahlberg's tormentor, who discovers he has a lot in common with his prisoner during a bitter political debate. Both have become soldiers only out of a desire to provide good lives for their families, but the Iraqi is still ready to vent his rage on Wahlberg because his infant son was killed in his crib by a stray American missile.
I'd planned to describe "Three Kings" a Gulf War "Kelly's Heroes" with a conscience, but that would be an oversimplification of such a layered, seditious film. It's more like a hip, modern "M*A*S*H" on an adrenaline high.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st October 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $108M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Village-A.M. Partnership, Coast Ridge, Atlas Entertainment, Junger Witt Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 121 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: David O Russell
Starring: George Clooney as Archie Gates, Mark Wahlberg as Troy Barlow, Ice Cube as Chief Elgin, Spike Jonze as Conrad Vig, Cliff Curtis as Amir Abdullah, Nora Dunn as Adriana Cruz, Jamie Kennedy as Walter Wogaman
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