(U.S., 1999, 114 minutes, color, 16mm)
War is hell, but in David O. Russell's picaresque action comedy-drama, it's also hellacious.
It's just after Gulf War I. A truce has ended the shooting gallery war, and the Kuwaiti landscape is a bloody junkyard of smoking tank carcasses and flyblown Iraqi corpses. A prisoner is taken. He's searched, and it turns out he's holding (er, I think that's the right word…) a treasure map.
From this most exquisite of movie cliché props flows a war film awash in references to other films, yet a film which also speaks - or shouts - in its own iconoclastic voice. George Clooney is Major Archie Gates, a short timer who decides he'd like to upholster his imminent retirement with gold. He leads three soldiers, Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Conrad Vig (Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze) and Chief (Ice Cube) across the sands, looking for the bunkered bullion. Theirs is a pervert's progress; on the way, they take target practice at footballs, derelict vehicles, and local citizens, and generally engage in full metal jacketed hijinks.
Director David O. Russell is obviously very much at home in the scatological, murderously screwball world of messrs Gates, Barlow, and Chief. His first short films, made in the eighties (Bingo Inferno and Hairway to the Stars) introduced his shrill humor to the festival circuit, and his first features, weirdo "comedies" like 1994's Spanking the Monkey and 1996's Flirting With Disaster, deserve the quotation marks. A filmmaker who in the past found comic possibilities in incest finds it again in Three Kings in such riotous moments as a bullet plowing through a man's vitals. This is Gunga Din as drawn by Robert Crumb.
David Russell got into filmmaking far later than the ordinary film school whiz kid, at the age of 28, and by the time he did, he'd already had a frustrating career as a social activist in New England. His passion for social change was filtered through an aesthetic sensibility that favored the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Like Pynchon, his own films frequently secrete their "messages" behind a thick fog of surreal detail, references to other artworks, and impatience with anything like romanticism. Yet, Russell's view of modern America as a frequently inequitable and unjust place is there in all his films, even if seen through a jaundiced lens.
Three Kings is like that. References to other films abound. Apocalypse Now is in there, but so are Clark Gable "boys own" adventures like Too Hot to Handle, and colonialist buddy films like The Man Who Would Be King. Russell nods to Natural Born Killers, as well, by putting an ambitious television journalist into the film as an electronic Boswell to Archie and the boys. Visually, the film is frenetic, even arresting; cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel used a special bleaching process to wash much of the color out his frames. Archie, Troy, Vig, and Chief gallop their Humvee through an overexposed inferno that continually erupts in gunfire, mine explosions, and Archie's one-liners. Besides the modern cohort of action directors (Quentin Tarantino and John Woo seem like frequent guests at Three Kings' table), there's a lot of John Huston here, as well. Like Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, or Beat the Devil, this is a swell caper film which unabashedly hopes for the success of its criminal enterprise, and finds its criminals infinitely more sympathetic than the forces of goodness they defy.
Smirking at other films, overflowing with lewdness and gore -- at first glance, the only ideology Three Kings seems to endorse is its own dirty joke-style logic. ("Three guys walk into a bar…"). But Russell's tough-eyed view of American life is there, under sedimentary layers of action-film mayhem, and its offered in one of the most ingenious back-handed critiques of American hegemony seen on the screen in the last decade. One moment reveals that Three Kings, almost against its will, is something more than just another Arnold-Bruce-Steven love song to automatic weaponry. It comes when correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), eager to graft a "sensitive" story onto the confusing and arbitrary events she has witnessed, asks a group of GI's whether they think the victory they've just made will relieve America of the "Vietnam syndrome." The soldiers are far too young to recall Vietnam. So is reporter Cruz, but she's obviously been well-briefed on the Bush, Sr. administration's hook for the way Americans are supposed to understand this splendid little war. The guys are more or less uncomprehending of her question; the footage will probably end up as B-roll.
But we know what she means. Will this movie make us forget those movies about Vietnam, Apocalypse Now and Go Tell the Spartans and The Deer Hunter, those movies that made war seem so complicated and winnerless? Will this war make Americans forget that war is not only violent, but - automatically and always -- a moral quagmire?
Three Kings' answer to that one is a hearty guffaw. Its greatest images are its most Pynchon-like, snapshots of a ancient world on which America has inflicted itself with little reason and even less mercy -- a parade of Rolls Royces in the desert, an Iraqi watching the Rodney King beating on television, and the loot of a post-modern war, Cuisinarts, Sonys, and other consumer doodads that seem, in the hands of Archie and the fellas, a good way to get rich, but not much of a way to save the world for democracy. The soldiers of Three Kings don't have much to say about the vague diplomatic rhetoric that rationalized the war; they're far more interested in the stuff they can take home with them. "Freedom" for Archie and his men is no abstraction about the greatest good for all of humanity; it means the freedom to have cool cars and a kick-ass stereo system.
No, says Three Kings, speaking through George Clooney's toothy grin, we haven't forgotten Vietnam, but we're tryin', and we're havin' a ball doin' it.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
Every so often a film comes along that’s as entertaining as it is a viable, political message destined to make viewers rethink their stance on war. The ‘70s films "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22" are prime examples of satires that had an impact because of their conscience and comedic irreverence. Dark humor is used as a defense mechanism to ensure survival and sanity in the chaotic face of unexplainable, surreal horror.
"Three Kings" is a welcome addition to the genre. Director David O. Russell is batting three-for-three after his 1994 debut "Spanking the Monkey" and the 1996 comedy "Flirting With Disaster." One caused a stir with its incestuous subplot and portrayal of adolescent restlessness and the other was a raucous comedy about adoption.
"Three Kings" is, in essence, a John Huston film for the ‘90s. It combines the mercenary workings of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with the "The Red Badge of Courage." Not only does it grapple with questions of morality in a time of war, it’s an intelligent, grippingly good action film as well.
It’s 1991. The Gulf War is at an end and the American troops are preparing to leave. Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (George Clooney), who is about to retire, then hears Saddam Hussein has stolen a cache of gold from Kuwait and that three soldiers have found a map to the bounty—and contemplates retiring in style. The soldiers who help in his quest are Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze). They, too, are ready go home just a little bit richer.
But what happens when a mission based upon selfishness turns into a journey of self-discovery and the uncovering of the truth? That’s the moral question "Three Kings" explores. Even foreign correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), a Christiane Amanpour-like journalist who initially is just a thorn in the side with her hard-bitten news coverage, becomes an ally.
Russell said he only knew the "official story" when he began the film. "We went to the Middle East and kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait." But on closer study, he said, he realized that Hussein was still in power. "When President Bush implored the Iraqi people to rebel and offered to help them do so, we didn't support them. They got massacred by their own army."
The result is a film that contains much of Russell’s idiosyncratic, offbeat humor but finds the heart and soul of the soldiers as well as the Iraqi people they at first grudgingly help. Each character takes a personal journey, becoming more aware of the world and its not-so-simple workings.
The film moves Clooney, who proved he could carry a picture with "Out of Sight," another step toward big-screen stardom as his character slowly shifts from being cynically apathetic to doing what’s right. He’s ably assisted by Wahlberg, Ice Cube and indie director Jonze, whose upcoming film "Being John Malkovich" already is creating a buzz.
The following is taken from a review by David Edelstein that appeared in the online magazine, Slate, Oct. 8, 1999:
"Are we shooting?" calls a boyish American soldier (Mark Wahlberg) to distant buddies at the start of Three Kings. He stands in a flat, whitish Iraqi desert dotted with mounds. On top of one, far away, an Iraqi waves a rifle and some kind of cloth. Is he taunting the American? Appealing to him? Is he surrendering or on the verge of opening fire? Hard to tell: The light is too glaring; the man’s frantic gestures too alien. A title has informed us that it’s 1991, that the cease-fire with Iraq has just become official. "Are we still shooting people or what?" the soldier calls again. In the absence of a clear answer—of a clear anything—he raises his rifle and shoots. The soldiers reach the Iraqi as he’s hemorrhaging, a look of wonder in his dying eyes. "You shot yourself a raghead!" whoops one, but the American who fired—identified by an on-screen title as U.S. Army Sgt. Troy Barlow—recoils from his handiwork. The war is over and Barlow has just killed his first man.
That scene is like a mini Beckett farce with a cruel jet of gore for a punch line. Barlow is shooting at people he doesn’t know and can barely see for reasons that are never apparent in a place that’s as foreign as the surface of the moon. All that’s finally real is the blood. From this brilliant overture, it’s obvious that the writer-director, David O. Russell, wants to break down your defenses against cinema’s violent imagery: He’s juxtaposing farce and atrocity in ways that few American directors have dared. And he’s not stinting on the carnage, either. The movie’s most talked-about close-up shows the track of a bullet as it enters a body, plowing its way through tissue and into a liver, which releases blackish bile. (Reportedly, Russell had bullets fired into a cadaver.) No wound, the director is saying (screaming, in effect), should ever be taken for granted.
It helps that Russell is fueled by genuine outrage at that most jumbled and arm’s length of wars: the one that pretended to be about the "liberation of the people of Kuwait"; the one that ended up (once the oil wells were recaptured) rebounding on Iraqis who’d been convinced by President Bush to take up arms against Saddam Hussein. As the protagonist, Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (a hard, brooding George Clooney) declares in his first scene, "I don’t even know what we did here." Cynical and disgusted, Gates gets wind (so to speak) of a wild discovery: a map lodged in the rear end of an Iraqi prisoner that shows what appear to be bunkers holding loot plundered from Kuwait. Announcing that he has no moral problem stealing from Saddam what Saddam has stolen from the sheiks, he joins with Barlow, Barlow’s buddy Vig (skinny Spike Jonze, director of the upcoming Being John Malkovich), a game but witless redneck, and the resourceful Chief (Ice Cube) in search of the motherlode. Millions of dollars worth of gold bullion, Gates says, can be loaded into their Humvee without firing a shot, and they’ll be back at camp before lunch.
At this juncture, Three Kings seems poised to turn into a relatively straightforward genre piece—a perverse "caper" movie with a touch of Gunga Din (1939). But the surreal setting hints at dissonances, disturbing incongruities. The white light scorches every surface—it seems to be eating into people. Details of the natural world are bleached out, but artificial colors—such as the pink and green footballs the soldiers pack with explosives and lob from their speeding vehicle for sport—leap out of the screen like radioactive Christmas baubles. The action comes in jarring spasms. A cow is blown up during an exercise, and the Americans are showered with bloody chunks of beef—a harbinger of the insane slaughter to come….
The weird juxtapositions in these scenes are the movie’s soul. Inside a bunker, a soldier uses a NordicTrack in front of a television just down the corridor from a torture chamber. Piles of cell phones, Cuisinarts, blue jeans, and gold watches sit side by side with weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi soldiers turn machine guns on a truck riddling its driver with bullets. When it skids into a building and overturns it doesn’t explode: Its tanks are full of milk for the starving people. Gates and his men have gone beyond the computer simulations and the TV cameras. As Russell has said, they’ve "fallen down a rabbit hole" into a place where nothing makes sense. It’s the same twilight zone that Steven Spielberg attempted to capture in Saving Private Ryan (1998). But Ryan, set in World War II, ultimately lacked Three Kings’ sense of moral chaos….
Russell’s first two films, Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting With Disaster (1996), were much smaller in scale, but both were products of the same angry sensibility. In the latter, the director used farce not to lighten the drama but to darken it, so that the slapstick debacles seemed to spring from the hero’s roiling unconscious. In Three Kings, those debacles spring from the blind desires of nations—from the collective unconscious. A war movie that opens the instant the war has ended, Three Kings is among the most pitiless autopsies ever filmed.
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