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Three Kings

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Three Kings

Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg
Director: David Russell
Rated: R
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: October 1999
Genres: Drama, War




Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

President George Bush expected to win the election of 1992 and who could blame him? Americans traditionally give another spin to an incumbent chief, Democrat Bill Clinton was effectively portrayed as a draft-dodger, the economy was in decent shape, and most of all Bush emerged a hero after winning the Gulf War against Iraq. Whatever went wrong with the campaign, Bush would have lost by even greater numbers if "Three Kings" were released during the contest for the high office. Written and directed by David O. Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting with Disaster,"), this film combines Russell's experience in doing quirky indie features with his adeptness at the action-adventure genre to portray the American president as a man who essentially lost the war. How so? Although Kuwait was effectively freed from its occupation by Saddam's Iraqi troops, Bush may have lied to the rebels in Iraq who wanted to see Saddam toppled. According to the story by John Ridley, Bush had promised that if the anti-Saddam people rose up in revolt against the leader they hated, the Americans would support them--just as JFK had promised aid to Cubans who'd rise up against Castro. But Bush, like Kennedy, demurred on his promise, leaving those naive enough to believe him to be slaughtered by Saddam.

"Three Kings" is not a knee-jerk anti-war picture. It does not give the message that combat is futile. After all, the U.S. did succeed in its stated mission to liberate oil-rich Kuwait and to keep the pipelines flowing unhampered to the West. Instead, by effectively combining a Saturday Night Live kind of irony and wit with some special effects that are more germane to Illustrated Man science encyclopedias, Russell effectively criticizes America's callous, overly pragmatic aims in the war. The White House comes across as a force interested only in an economic success--keeping black gold gushing and flowing into Western gas tanks and factories-- while turning its back on the downtrodden people of that hapless Middle Eastern nation.

But "Three Kings" is no sermonizing bit of agitprop in favor of more aggressive action. The picture portrays the war as violent, though not in the ruthless manner of Steven Spielberg's wonderful "Saving Private Ryan"--but rather as a panorama of utter craziness, from the booze-filled celebratory parties of the American troops to the frenzied pot pourri involving rebellious Iraqis against the loyalists, and Americans against the former. As in the Vietnam War, one could scarcely blame the U.S. for confusing the two groups, hardly able to sort out friend from foe.

The picture opens just after the war allegedly ends with a cease-fire in 1991, an agreement that should have meant the termination of all gunplay. But the desert sands stir when Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), learning of the existence of gold that Saddam had stolen from Kuwait which lies stores in a bunker, decides to cut himself in to some of the bullion. Grabbing three soldiers who have extricated a map of its whereabouts from an Arab's anal cavity, he sets out with Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze--who, incidentally directed the even quirkier movie to be released soon, "Being John Malkovich"). Rationalizing that they would not really be stealing since the gold is in possession of their country's arch enemy, they lose an aggressive reporter, Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) and go off to find the bullion.

In a Kafkaesque scene, the Yanks watch helplessly-- ignored by pro-Saddam troops who are concentrating on rebels in a village--until an enemy soldier shoots a girl's mother. From point on, chaos reigns as the gold-digging quartet discover scruples they never knew they had and risk court martial by shattering the cease fire and discharging rounds against the Iraqi soldiers.

Using special film stock to show the disorientation of the troops, Russell adds some poignant scene including one in which an Iraqi, having captured Troy Barlow, speaks to him about his own pain--how his one-month old son was blown to bits by American bombs released over his village while Barlow's little daughter is safe with her mother in Arizona.

Director Russell wears his morality on his sleeve, playing with the old philosophic inquiry about whether disobeying orders can be more ethical than complying with directives from on-high. He startles us at several points, showing what happens to a man's body when a bullet pierces the skin. In a kind of World-Book scientific exploration, he essentially x-rays a soldier at the moment of a bullet's impact, showing how the cartridge penetrates organs releasing bile and a subsequent host of bacteria--which leads the victim to be overcome by sepsis and ultimate death unless swift action is taken.

Filmed in Mexicali and parts of Arizona and California, "Three Kings" is a treat for a sophisticated audience: an opulent film with indie conventions running throughout yet one which could satisfy a larger audience of action-adventure fans. Like Andrew Fleming's comedy "Dick," however, "Three Kings" may baffle those who are too young to have lived through the Gulf War, who have not read much about it, and who may be perplexed by the confluence of forces which sometimes fire upon one another, at other times ignoring the opposite side. Ice Cube is growing as an actor while George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg turning in predictably professional turns in the first major American movie to deal with 1990's combat.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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