Three Kings
directed by David O. Russell
(Warner Brothers, 1999)

A cease-fire has gone into effect -- maybe -- and the guys out in the desert aren't sure if they're still supposed to be fighting. Then, they spot an Iraqi soldier in the distance. "Are we shooting?" Troy Barlow yells. No one knows -- one comrade is too busy getting a grain of sand out of another's eye to pay much attention. So Barlow shoots. And his buddies think the dead Iraqi is pretty incredible. "I didn't think I'd see anybody get shot in this war," one says. "Ah ... take my picture!" celebrates another, jumping up and down beside the body.

It's this kind of macabre humor, the juxtaposition of American young-buck patriotism with brutality, that makes Three Kings something to watch. And that's just the film's opening scene.

Director David O. Russell won several minor industry awards for his work in Three Kings, a film that's set in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. It's a war fought for the Kuwaitis and the news cameras, with information withheld from both the American public and its soldiers. Soldiers openly wonder why they're there, happy though they are to blast away at the outmanned Iraqis before heading home.

But soon, Archie Gates (George Clooney) figures out why he's there. He finds a map pulled from an Iraqi prisoner's posterior, and bets it's a guide to where Saddam Hussein hid stolen Kuwaiti gold. Gates reckons he might as well set up a little unofficial expedition, swipe some of the gold and set himself up for his return home. Along for the ride are Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, in a break from his directing career).

"Out and back before lunch" is the plan. It's a take from Kelly's Heroes, but there are no heroes here. It's hard to tell who's less appealing -- the brawling, drunk Americans singing along to "God Bless the USA," or the Iraqi inquisitor who has nothing left to lose because American bombs have killed his family. It's not a rousing "right-and-wrong" World War II film, with John Wayne in the white hat and menacing Nazis lurking in corners. Three Kings is a provocative look at the bonds that form between soldiers, and also between soldiers and the civilians they're supposed to be protecting.

The film also asks why Americans were put in a position to die (Its answer? Oil.), and wonders why the U.S. didn't do more to help Iraqis willing to resist Saddam -- instead, leaving them behind to be tortured and killed. It's not ruining the story to say Gates and his crew find the gold -- and more than they're bargaining for -- in their wild little adventure. Clooney, Wahlberg and Ice Cube are powerful in their balance of fear, courage and nobility, and Jonze is both maddening and sweet as the rube Conrad. Nora Dunn, as newswoman Adriana Cruz, is right on target.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

Buy it from