Three Kings

Somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi Desert, four American soldiers have taken leave from the Gulf War in a quest to find Saddam Hussein’s private stash of stolen Kuwait gold. Their plan seems foolproof. A quick in and out and they can give up their day jobs after the war.

three kingsNothing is as easy as it seems in director David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” an anti-war film that ranks with the best of them. Shot by Newton Thomas Sigel on a bleached-out, grainy film stock that gives the film a realistic, documentary feel, “Three Kings” emerges as an polished gem that shines bright.

Like Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H,” Russell’s film mixes black comedy with gritty, realistic war scenes. This unusual blend of comedy and carnage constantly catches you by surprise, creating a visceral experience that is hard to beat. One moment you are laughing, the next you are gripping your seat cushion for comfort.

It is always a pleasure to watch talented filmmakers mature. Since his audacious debut with “Spanking the Monkey,” David O. Russell has proven himself a master of finding humor in the most unexpected places. His edgy style works because his characters are so well drawn and executed you’re willing to follow them anywhere.

At its most preposterous, Russell’s “Flirting with Disaster” remained a raucous romp because the director and cast were capable of grounding the material. Most people would walk out of a film detailing the summer relationship between a son and his mother, yet “Spanking the Monkey” was so powerful and awkwardly funny you couldn’t leave your seat.

Even with those credentials, nothing in Russell’s resume could prepare us for “Three Kings.” Russell turns an epic tale of fortune seekers into something more personal. Working from his tight, literate script (based on a story by John Ridley), Russell delivers a character study that doubles as an action film.

There’s plenty of action in “Three Kings,” but there is also a great story about four GI’s who go for the gold and wind up becoming unwitting heroes. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze play the soldiers who stumble across a treasure map in the most unusual place. Once they confirm that the gold is there for the taking, they set out on a quick morning mission to steal it.

Their quest to become war time millionaires is sidelined when they decide to help a group of Iraqi refugees safely reach the border. What started off as a mission for money becomes a mission of mercy, with both the GI’s and refugees caught between Iraq and a hard place.

As a screenwriter, Russell uses the mission to address America’s involvement in the Gulf War. He doesn’t stand on a soapbox, but he does give Arab characters a voice seldom heard in mainstream films. How refreshing to experience an American film that treats all characters with equal respect.

“Three Kings” reminded me of a modern version of “Kelly’s Heroes,” director Brian G. Hutton’s starry 1970 war caper. In that film a group of American soldiers (including Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland) attempt to steal Nazi treasures during the war.

The tone of the two film is distinctly different. “Kelly’s Heroes” was more of a romp, and even though “Three Kings” has some lighthearted moments, the emphasis is on human emotion. Some scenes are painful to watch (a refugee is shot to death in front of her little daughter), while others are just plain gripping.

Russell bathes the film with grainy images that actually enhance the film’s tone. The filmmaker also utilizes camera tricks that in less talented hands would look showy. In Russell’s hands, these moments become part of the landscape.

Clooney has finally found a role that fits him like a glove. There isn’t a false note in his performance. Like a fine wine, Mark Wahlberg just gets better with time. There is an honesty in his role as a new father who will do whatever it takes to make it back home.

Ice Cube also amazes me. At first I thought his foray into film was just a gimmick, yet the rapper has proven time and again how vital he can be in front of a camera. His performance in “Three Kings” is accomplished.

All great war films require interesting background players, and “Three Kings” is no exception. Spike Jonze lends excellent support as the fourth member of Clooney’s team, while Nora Dunn delivers a brassy performance as a cable news correspondent looking for a story.

The film benefits from Carter Burwell’s exciting music and Robert K. Lambert’s tricky editing.

In only his third time at bat, director Russell hits a home run. “Three Kings” could have easily been just another mindless action film. Under Russell’s smart direction, it becomes something much more. With characters you can root for and a story that is both engaging and honest, “Three Kings” goes for the gold and comes out a winner.



George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Mykelti Williamson, Cliff Curtis in a film directed by David O. Russell. Rated R. 116 Minutes.


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