movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Three Kings
Three Kings contains many of the same plot elements of war movie favorites such as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes. And it has some of the attitude of M*A*S*H. However, Three Kings doesn't feel derivative. Visually it's a stunning movie. Whereas most Hollywood movies feel slick and polished, Three Kings feels gritty and untidy--and it's all the more realistic because of it. You can almost feel the blistering sun and the windblown sand as the characters rush across the Iraqi desert.

Instead of working with a full spectrum of colors, director David O. Russell (who directed the excellent comedy Flirting With Disaster) and cinematographer Tom Siegel (who photographed the cult favorite The Usual Suspects) have drained away bright colors so that only white, yellow, grey, and dull blue remain--as if the film had been lying in the sun for a few hours. In addition, hand held cameras bob and weave around the actors, insinuating us in the action--as if we are one of the Desert Storm soldiers who populate this film.

This irreverent attitude is also reflected in the editing as the filmmakers freely jump away from the Gulf War for quick peeks at the lives of the principal characters. We see Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) dealing with an uncooperative copy machine, Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) dealing with unruly airport luggage, and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) blasting away unmercifully with a shotgun at a parked car.

For most of the movie's running time, the filmmakers avoid the standard cliches of war movies. The story gives us a quartet of soldiers who stumble upon a treasure map (not-so-cleverly clenched within the buttocks of a captured Iraqi soldier). To their surprise, the "butt map" appears to indicate Saddam Hussein's hiding place for all the gold his soldiers stole from Kuwait. With visions of gold bullion ("You mean the little cubes you drop in hot water to make soup?" asks the less-the-brilliant Vig) dancing in their heads, they put together a mission to "liberate" the gold. Led by the undisciplined officer Archie Gates (George Clooney), this quartet of money hungry mercenaries speeds across the desert toward their goal while the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" blares infectiously as ironic counterpoint. Never mind that the war has just ended. Now it's time to get rich. With Saddam's troops focused on eliminating civil unrest, the gold looks like easy pickins'. "Saddam has too many problems," says an Iraqi soldier. However, along the way they witness what's happening to those people who resist Saddam. Archie Gates and his cohorts become pulled between their desire to become millionaires and their desire to help the Iraqi villagers.

At the same time, the movie makes a strong political statement about the ineffectual military decisions that guided the Gulf War: the Iraqi people who stood up against Saddam were abandoned by the U.S. and then exterminated by Saddam's soldiers. "Bush leaves us twisting in the wind," says one of the Iraqis (referring to then U.S. President George Bush).

Writer/director Russell tells this tale with a flurry of action, and by design, nothing makes much sense. For example, a large oil transport truck rolls up in front of a small town--and is immediately met with a missile blast from the Iraqi troops. Instead of the huge explosion we might expect, a wave of milk gushes from a hole in the truck and knocks down our heroes. And in the movie's first scene, Troy sees an Iraqi solider on top of a sand dune. Should he shoot? Is the cease fire order in effect? What should he do? The movie effectively communicates this sense of dislocation as it creates a world that defies our expectations. A small, sand-blown village might look like nothing special, but underground awaits a squadron of luxury automobiles.

By creating a world where everything seems unfamiliar and chaotic, Russell forces us to meet his characters on these same terms. Therefore, don't expect exposition that develops the psychological backgrounds for the characters. Russell's story eschews those niceties in favor of a headstrong rush of non sequitors. Russell wants to keep us off balance--and he does that to perfection. However, this approach also has the effect of distancing us from the story's lead characters. We never find out why this group of soldiers eventually gives in to their sense of ethics. All we get is a generic sense of moral development. This metamorphosis is part of the movie's mysterious world. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of making the story developments arbitrary--and thus not particularly compelling.

Three Kings frequently flirts with greatness as Russell creates a convincingly chaotic portrait of war time greed. However, as the movie nears its end and the plot continues to plod forward inexorably toward its goal, the movie becomes more and more contrived. Yet, Three Kings is an impressive movie that suggests Russell is a major talent.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]