Screenplay : David O. Russell (story by John Ridley)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : George Clooney (Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Sgt. Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Chief Elgin), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Cliff Curtis (Amir), Saïd Taghmaoui (Said)
A lot of bodies get hit by a lot of bullets in movies these days. And a lot of those movies don't take much time to contemplate what it means to be struck by a bullet--the violence of the impact beyond the immediate visceral excitement experienced by an audience watching at a safe distance in the movie theater.
In "Three Kings," director David O. Russell not only shows what happens on the exterior when a body is struck by a bullet, he takes us inside the body to let us know exactly what kind of damage can be done. It's a sick, disturbing moment when we see the bullet passing through vital organs, and the sudden appearance of green bile to fill the ragged new void. The sequence is disturbing, and it should be. Violence in the movies has become too neat, too acceptable, and too clean. As the great Sam Peckinpah, director of such blood-soaked classics as "The Wild Bunch" (1969), once said, "When the truth of violence is shown on the screen it is frightening--disgusting--it makes people sick. It should make them sick."
Of course, the violence in "Three Kings" stands out in the starkest of terms because the movie itself is so hard to pin down. It would be nice if we could describe it as a "war movie," or an "action movie," or some other kind of generic title that would make the violence palatable in its predictability.
As it stands, "Three Kings" is a frustrating, brilliant paradox--a $50-million independent film made a man with only two feature films under his belt, one of which is a comedy about incest titled "Spanking the Money" (1994). "Three Kings" is a quirky, surrealistic examination of war that breaks every conceivable genre boundary. All at once it is a gritty, violent look at the insanity of modern warfare; a stinging critique of American involvement in the Middle East; a crime story about a multi-million dollar heist; and a side-splitting human comedy.
The story takes place shortly after the cease-fire agreement at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. It concerns four American soldiers: Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney), a cynical Special Forces commander; Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), who has recently become a new father; Chief (Ice Cube), a down-to-earth, religious man; and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), an ignorant young man who is embarrassed that he never finished high school. They set off on an unofficial mission when a map is discovered that shows the whereabouts of several bunkers filled with Kuwaiti gold bullions that were stolen by Saddam Hussein's army.
At first, the American soldiers are only out for the monetary gain (some $23 million), but they eventually become involved in the plight of the Iraqi rebels who have risen up at President Bush's behest, but have now found that they have no support from the American army. It is here that the movie is most critical of American involvement in the Middle East, as it makes painfully clear that the U.S. essentially left the Iraqis dangling without protection, almost guaranteeing their slaughter. In one of the movie's most surreal moments, the American soldiers trade pleasantries with members of Saddam's army who are, at the same time, brutally beating and even executing Iraqi civilians.
Russell's screenplay, which was rewritten from an original screenplay by John Ridley ("U-Turn"), is sharp in its critique of military practices and the twisted version of humanism practiced in the Gulf War. The Gulf War has typically been seen as a great American success because it was quick, swift, and resulted in almost no loss of American life. Russell pulls the blinders off this perspective by showing us how the media (personified not-so-nicely in a female newscaster played by Nora Dunn) was tightly controlled by the Army and by putting us in the middle of the desert and showing the true ugliness of the conflict. In other words, as Paul Rogers described it, "the myth of a clinically clean war" was just that: a myth.
In both its general themes and its use of a narrative involving a mission gone awry, "Three Kings" resembles Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Both films share the same kind of disjointed, manic quality that gives their thematic material its weight. Both films also use the glaring juxtaposition of American capitalism with the poverty-stricken nature of the country the Army is supposed to be saving (in "Apocalypse Now," it was the arrival of Playboy bunnies in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle; in "Three Kings," it is the littering of Cuisinarts, TVs, stereo equipment, Louis Vuttion luggage, and expensive foreign cars in medieval-like dungeon-bunkers under the searing desert).
Russell uses a variety of cinematic tricks to heighten the effect of the movie's general disorientation. The soundtrack utilizes different types of familiar music to act as an ironic counterpoint to the action onscreen. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel ("The Usual Suspects," "Fallen") uses an assortment of grainy film stocks, and many of the scenes are overexposed, further emphasizing the desert heat and the violent tensions among all the different groups involved. The movie often employs hand-held camerawork during the battle sequences, and certain moments have the same kind of blistering intensity that Steven Spielberg achieved in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998).
Of course, the movie would not have achieved such success if it weren't for the actors who bring the characters to life. George Clooney, in a very anti-George Clooney role, holds the center of the film without dominating it. Mark Wahlberg is especially effective as Troy; the scene in which he manages to find a common ground of humanity with the Irqai soldier who is torturing him is a great, disturbing moment that calls into question the boundaries of friend and foe. Ice Cube brings stark intensity to his role of Chief, and Spike Jonze brings a great deal of stress-relieving humor to the role of Conrad, a sad character who is nonetheless bursting with vitality.
"Three Kings" is one of the best films of the year not only because it is so confidently constructed and emotionally jarring, but because it challenges. It challenges our preconceived notions of what the Gulf War was about, our pleasant contentment with the depictions of on-screen violence, and our ideas of what a "war" or "anti-war" film should be. By juxtaposing humor and horror, melodrama and comedy, surrealism and naturalism, David O. Russell achieves levels of intensity that few filmmakers can muster. When I walked out of the theater after seeing "Three Kings," I couldn't say exactly what it was that I had seen, but I was certain that it was of lasting importance.
Copyright © 1999 James Kendrick