Three Kings (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Courage Under Fire was the first American movie about the Gulf War. Since then, there haven't been many others. David O. Russell's Three Kings becomes one of only a few mainstream efforts to venture into this underpopulated cinematic territory. Just as the Gulf War wasn't a traditional conflict, so Three Kings is not a traditional war picture -- there are no big battles and only a few small-scale skirmishes. Instead, this is more of an action/adventure film, and a fairly good one at that. The characters are well developed, the situations are effectively realized, and, most importantly, there's some thought-provoking content just beneath the surface. Until the ending, Three Kings is a surprisingly solid effort.

Russell is certainly an interesting filmmaker. This is his third directorial effort, and all of them have been very different. His debut, the low-budget Spanking the Monkey, was a dark, dark comedy about incest, masturbation, and a lack of privacy. His follow-up was the very funny Flirting With Disaster, about the lead character's attempts to find his birth mother. Three Kings, unlike Russell's other two movies, isn't a comedy, although elements of offbeat wit have been injected into the mix. The director manages to incorporate black humor and dramatic heft into a picture that, at the outset, appears to be conventional fare.

Three Kings should probably be called Four Kings, since there are four main characters (although it would wreck the Biblical allusion). Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Vig (Spike Jonze) are soldiers stuck in Iraq during March 1991, just after the ceasefire declaration. Early in the film, after Troy shoots a gun-toting Iraqi soldier, Vig sums up their experience by saying, "I didn't think I'd get to see anyone get shot in this war. Take a picture." Meanwhile, Archie, who is only weeks away from retirement, isn't being cooperative with the reporter (Nora Dunn) he has been asked to escort. He is told curtly by a superior, "This is a media war. You'd better get on board." The boredom lifts for all four men when they come into possession of a map that shows the possible location of a secret bunker where Saddam Hussein may have hidden millions of dollars in gold bullion stolen from Kuwait. With mercenary intentions, Archie, Troy, Vig, and the Chief set out one morning with the intention of striking it rich. Reality deals them a harsh blow, however. Once away from the army camp, they come across Saddam's troops brutally massacring those Iraqi citizens who have followed George Bush's exhortation to throw off their leader's yoke. Expecting American aid, they rebelled against Saddam, only to discover that no foreign help would be forthcoming.

As action/adventure movies go, Three Kings is reasonably effective. It's about mercenaries who start out with hardened, cynical hearts but who grow to feel deeply for the plight of the people around them. The action sequences are expertly directed, and Russell develops tension because we're never sure who's going to survive or what's going to happen next. There are also several scenes of graphic brutality that underscore the basic inhumanity of any armed conflict.

George Clooney, who has yet to strike box office paydirt, gives the kind of strong performance that one expects from a leading man in this kind of situation. Archie is decisive, intelligent, and has a moral center. Mark Wahlberg, while lacking Clooney's screen presence, continues to show development as an actor. Rounding out the main quartet, rapper Ice Cube and Beastie Boys video director Spike Jonze, turn in mostly solid work, although there are times when Jonze goes over the top. Mention should be made of Nora Dunn, whose performance as the profanity-spewing journalist Adrianna Cruz is a highlight. Dunn is funny, but in a subdued way. There's more drama required from this role than from anything the former Saturday Night Live star has previously attempted, and she carries it off with aplomb.

Three Kings asks the hard questions about the numerous military actions the United States has spearheaded during the second half of the 20th Century. For instance, what is the motivation behind the attack? Regardless of where it is (Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, the Balkans), are we fighting for legitimate political or humanitarian reasons, or is it all an attempt to boost patriotism and TV ratings? When battles can be won by pushing buttons rather than committing troops, does it impart a false sense of security? What happens in the event of a ground action, when lives will be lost? And, in this sanitized environment, do we ever consider the real, human cost on the civilian population of the so-called "enemy"? In one way or another, Three Kings delves into these issues, but the script has enough integrity and intelligence not to provide the answers.

I am unsure whether Three Kings has much box office potential. Despite having several recognizable names on the marquee, the subject matter may not generate enough interest. The film can be seen on more than one level. For those who appreciate light fare, this is a movie about a bunch of friends who go on a treasure hunt and find more than they expected. For those who don't mind thinking, there's uncommon depth to be found in the subtext. Three Kings is solidly structured until the end, which has a tacked-on feel. The conclusion and epilogue both seem like they were added to please Hollywood executives who might not otherwise have greenlighted the project. Overall, however, Three Kings makes for an interesting and occasionally exhilarating examination of modern war and human brutality.

Three Kings (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1