It's hard to believe that eleven years have passed since this very contemporary-looking movie came out. While enjoying the performances of three still-popular stars -- George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube -- we're forced to remember that the Middle Eastern war being depicted is three entire conflicts in the past. Writer-director David O. Russell came from the back of the pack to grab a lot of attention with 1999's Three Kings, an adventure movie that waited just a few years to turn the First Gulf War into a semi-comic joy ride. Star Clooney advanced a long way from a role in Return of the Killer Tomatoes to burst forward as a liberal icon as well as an in-demand romantic idol; here he essentially plays the Clint Eastwood part from the old escapist war comedy Kelly's Heroes. Clooney's avaricious soldier takes a day off from babysitting news people to chase after a fortune in Kuwaiti gold stolen by the Iraqi Army, and hidden for Saddam Hussein. Although Three Kings soon drops its cynical outlook to morph into a kinder, gentler machine gun movie, the old rules still apply. Being Cool means never having to worry about petty things like chain-of-command, and Lord have mercy on colorful sidekick characters that don't quite rate star billing. Three Kings goes more than a little soft and fuzzy on its subject, but remains a refreshing and very funny oddball adventure story.
Victory has been declared in the First Persian Gulf War, but while the troops party hearty, a trio of ambitious non-careerist soldiers comes across a map hidden by an Iraqi soldier in a rather un-hygienic place. When they realize that the map identifies stashes of Iraqi loot, Archie Gates (George Clooney) leads three other soldiers on a half-day's "collection jaunt" into the nearby desert. Special Forces soldier-turned public relations officer Gates must first ditch embedded reporter Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who desperately wants to score a big story. He shares with his buddies Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) the realization that a return to civilian life means a return to miserable low paying jobs. A few millions in gold bullion should cure that problem.
Everything changes out in the desert. By calling a halt to the hostilities, President Bush has avoided an invasion of Iraq that would undoubtedly lead to a decade-long military quagmire, a tragedy like Vietnam. We've learned our lesson too well to fall into that trap! But Bush's propaganda encouraged an uprising within Iraq, and now the dissenting populace is being massacred by Saddam's vicious troops. When Archie's little convoy comes to steal the gold, starving women and children rush forward, thinking that they're going to be rescued. The raiding party tries to go about its greedy business, but human instinct gets in the way... and the shooting begins. Meanwhile, the Army figures out what's going on and initiates a search for its renegade treasure hunters, just as reporter Cruz finds the controversial story she's looking for.
Three Kings was the film of the month back in 1999. Movies that present American kids playing rock 'n' roll as they zoom across the landscape in their Humvees have now become the norm, but John Ridley's story seemed rather daring at the time in its open suggestion that the Gulf War was a major double-cross of non-combatant civilians who took the first President Bush up on his promise to help them if they opposed Saddam Hussein. David O. Russell's screenplay has plenty of non-PC comic details, such as the "butt cheek map" and two of the raiders' Tarantino-ish arguments over whether a Lexus comes in a convertible model. That joke pays off beautifully when the thieves come across an underground bunker containing dozens of stolen luxury automobiles, including one of the cars in question. The film scores another major genre narrative inspiration when Troy Barlow is captured. Tossed into a room filled with more Kuwaiti loot, he rifles through a bag of stolen cell phones until he finds a satellite model and dials his wife (Liz Stauber) in America! It's a very clever way of summoning the cavalry -- the prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta were born 200 years too soon.
Way back in Sergio Leone's Mexican Revolution epic Duck You Sucker Rod Steiger tried to rob a bank and found the vaults crammed with political prisoners. Our thieving Three Kings find that Saddam's killer corps are holding civilians for that same purpose, including women and children. When they realize that their quick getaway has failed and that they're all probably going to prison, our heroes turn into Robin Hoods, rushing to the Iranian border. You know, a safe place to hide. The Iraqi women carry the gold ingots and the convoy turns into a refugee march. Our Three Kings are the only thing protecting these people from execution. The official Army response harks back to John Milius' The Wind and The Lion, where the Right Fight For The Right Reason is threatened by politics: "That can't be our concern, Ma'am!"
Three Kings turns rather slippery at this point, with the thieves suddenly transformed into Freedom Riders and the saviors of women and children. If the movie is dishonest, it's because it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Archie Gates and his crew are finishing the job that the craven U.S. Army wouldn't. The thieves become social workers and rah-rah heroes. Adriana Cruz's "big story" will spare them each ten years in military prison. Gee, if it weren't for Three Kings we'd never know about this.
Righteous liberal movies have historically had little or no effect on public policy, and the audience for this show probably remembered the Rump Map gag a lot longer than any Big Messages about wars in the Middle East. As a seriocomic satire Three Kings gets a solid A ... it's witty without being snide and its production and direction are tops. Clooney, Wahlberg and Ice Cube are amusingly likable as soldiers that have spent months near the front lines without firing a shot. Spike Jonze gets a plum part as their slack-jawed driver, who needs to have everything explained to him twice. Their sneaky little outing gives them a crash course in the nastier side of warfare: atrocious killings, torture, and the life-altering experience of simply being shot. Mock-surgical views of bullets harming internal organs drive home the physical damage of gunfire. That the movie can slide from cynical comedy to a fair approximation of a serious attitude -- and not entirely insult our intelligence -- is an appreciable achievement. Seeing Three Kings now only makes it seem more prescient. The only rational response to the second Bush's Iraq War is screamed profanities, and perhaps sickened vomiting. The dancing and partying by the "victorious" soldiers in the beginning of this movie originally played as unearned hubris -- it now comes off as relatively innocent.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Three Kings is a stunningly sharp and detailed transfer of this odd Persian War comedy drama. On DVD the various settings --- the open desert, the underground bunkers -- seemed rather unimpressive, but the clarity of HD restores their distinct character. Designer Catherine Hardwicke has a lot of fun revealing sub-desert caves full of consumer goods and rows of shiny Mercedes Benzes, and those tons of gold look absolutely real.
The many extras reflect the overkill ethic applied to earlier DVD Special Editions. Two commentaries give us speechifying, explanations and production anecdotes from director David O. Russell and his producers Charles Roven and Edward L. McDonnell. A fancy behind the scenes featurette is titled Under the Bunker. Another EPK slanted featurette focuses on Ice Cube's experience as an actor, and designer Hardwicke (future director of Twilight) shows off her elaborate set for an Iraqi village. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel gets his innings in as well, detailing the various rationales behind his visual choices.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Kings Blu-ray rates:
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