Three Kings (1999)


Three Kings

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Three Kings provides a bold interpretation of America’s first Gulf War. And it strikes a precarious balance that will make it a difficult film to classify: It’s an outrageous comedy and a challenging morality play, while at heart its a classic Western (set in an unlikely context).

David O. Russell, director of the hilarious Flirting With Disaster, has much more serious things on his mind this time around.

The Gulf War is a dangerous subject to raise on the big screen. Since we have been led to distrust the media’s presentation of American involvement overseas, we don’t really know what went on over there, do we? But this is not the usual Oliver Stone “America is a big liar” exposé. Yes, Russell does want us to think about how America encouraged a rebellion among the Kuwatis, stirring them to oppose Saddam Hussein. And it’s not hard to believe that we left them to fend for their lives in the aftermath. But what the movie asks is this: What would you do if you found yourself in the middle of such a betrayal? Would you do what you could to help those Kuwaitis in danger, or would you follow your country’s social policy to the letter, knowing that good people would suffer the consequences?

Three Kings tells the story of four (yes, four) adventuresome American soldiers who have seen a treaty signed, have felt the imminent threat of war’s chaos lift for a while, and they are now looking forward to better days.

Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) has a new baby he can’t wait to see, back home in his wife’s arms. Sgt. Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) has been appointed as spokesman soldier to the media, and he’s interested in doing anything but that. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) carries on a perpetual conversation with Jesus is ready for whatever is next. And the Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, who has become a formidable director) plays a trigger-happy kid who really wishes he could see some action before they leave.

What happens when these guys get their hands on a map leading to a load of pure gold that Saddam stole from the Kuwatis? Well, that’s not hard to predict. First they shake loose a pesky reporter named Adriana Cruz (played with gusto by the underrated SNL alum Nora Dunn). Then they grab a vehicle and head out across the desert, knowing that the treaty will cover them if they run into Saddam’s men. But when they do run into Saddam’s men, they find more than they bargained for: a bunch of Kuwatis who know that when Uncle Sam pulls out, their fate is not going to be pleasant. The Americans are stuck. What should they do? The U.S. government has vowed that these soldiers will keep their guns to themselves….

Watching these self-centered opportunists grapple with their consciences makes the movie much more than a caper. And the actors are up to the job, making us believe that they have what it takes to do a wrong job right.

But this is a war movie, and for the sake of truthfulness, there is a lot of bloodshed on the screen. A couple of shootings in particular are splashed graphically across the screen. But I commend Russell for demonstrating how to use violence responsibly in a film. There is no gratuitous footage in this movie. Every time he shows us a violent act, we are forced to think about it, to comprehend the motivation, the action, the immediate effect, and the permanent consequences both physical and psychological. One gunshot in particular carries us with it, right through the target’s body, so that we come to understand what exactly a simple bullet can do to a person. I don’t think anybody’s going to come away from this movie with an unhealthy admiration of gunslingers.

Three Kings has a simple moral lesson as its backbone, but it is so much more than just a morality play. It’s a journey into an experience that for the most part has been kept hidden, not by a cover-up, but by the sensationalistic nature of the news media. Russell’s characters ground us in the human experience of the war, so that we can imagine the challenges of the soldiers, but also the plight of the Kuwatis: those who have never seen Americans before, and those who returned from U.S. schools to start businesses, only to have their cafes blown up by U.S. bombs.

There’s a lot to talk about here, a lot to learn from. And a lot to enjoy along the way. Three Kings is the kind of war movie that refuses to give the audience what it wants and expects, but delivers something much more rewarding instead.

Writer/director – David O. Russell
Based on a story by John Ridley
Director of photography – Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor – Robert K. Lambert
Music – Carter Burwell
Production designer – Catherine Hardwicke
Producer – Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt and Edward L. McDonnell
Warner Brothers. 105 minutes. This film is rated R for profanity, violence, and gory imagery.
STARRING: George Clooney (Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Sgt. Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Staff Sgt. Chief), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Jamie Kennedy (Walter), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Cliff Curtis (Amir) and Said Taghmaoui (Captain Sa’id).


4 Responses to “Three Kings (1999)”

  1. Alan Says:

    Any bonus would be good — the DVD isn’t going to come with ANYTHING but the movie (and subtitles). Watch out for a Christmas bonus edition.

  2. The traffic chick Says:

    How about the “South Park” episode about the Passion in which Cartman raises a nazi army and Mel Gibson leaps around like a maniac when the boys try to get a refund for the movie?

    That would show a GRREAT sense of humor!

  3. Nick Alexander Says:

    I want to see the outtakes that has Jim Caviezel struck by lightning.

  4. The Looking Closer Film Review Archive « Looking Closer at the Movies Says:

    [...] Red Line, The (1998) Thomas Crown Affair, The (1999) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006) Three Kings (1999) THX 1138: The Director’s Cut (2004) Time Out (2001) Titan A.E. (2000) Titanic (1997) [...]

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