Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, only two major films have been made about
it. The first, 1996's "Courage Under Fire," starred Denzel Washington as a
discharged Lieutenant investigating the worth of the first woman (Meg Ryan)
ever to be given a Medal of Honor posthumously. Now comes "Three Kings,"
fashionably-directed by acclaimed indie filmmaker David O. Russell (1994's
"Spanking the Monkey," 1996's "Flirting With Disaster"), which is not your
usual war picture, and about as far as could be from something akin to Steven
Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
Set immediately following the end of the Gulf War in March 1991, when the
infantry is planning to return home to their families, Major Archie Gates
(George Clooney), on the eve of retiring from the military, discovers a
document that points the way to a stash of Kuwaiti gold that is worth
hundreds of millions. The map, originally found by Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark
Wahlberg), a young, married man who has a one-month-old baby at home; Sgt.
Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), a former airport baggage tranferrer; and Pvt. Conrad
Vig (Spike Jonze), a happy-go-lucky southern redneck, sticking out of the
backside of an Iraqi soldier, holds the key to bright, wealthy futures for
all four of the men. Continuously followed by pushy news reporter Adriana
Cruz (Nora Dunn), who is determined to get exclusive first rights to the
story, the four are faced by many other hurdles in their way, including not
letting their superiors know about the illegal operation, and storming the
bunkers, still overrun by the enemies.
With a highly inventive, no-holds-barred style that plays itself out like a
"how-to" class on evoking freneticism, "Three Kings" is such an
invigoratingly energized motion picture that it's almost difficult not to get
caught up in the goings-on. Not your typical war film by any stretch of the
imagination, and more unconventional than your average $50-million studio
picture, the film is a graceful mixture of several different genres,
including comedy, drama, and action, with a few minor war battles thrown in
for good measure. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel wisely has chosen to
give the film an over-developed look as if the film has been sitting out in
the sun too long, so as to emphasize the gritty nature of the characters and
dire situations, and the eclectic soundtrack is also cause for praise, which
features such pop icons as The Beach Boys, and easy-listening rock, thanks to
The Eagles. The conflicting elements that cause the tone to waver from dark
to comedic gives the film a constant air of unpredicatability, as the viewer
is never exactly sure where the film is headed from moment to moment.
The characters, although thinly-written, are inhabited by a cast of
first-rate actors that take their roles and improve upon their limited
development in the writing department. George Clooney, as in last year's "Out
of Sight," has more than proven his previously questionable leading-man
status and can surefootedly carry a picture (just as long as it doesn't have
'Batman' in the title). Cool, calm, and determined, Clooney occupies his
character with such ease (similar to 1996's "From Dusk Till Dawn") that it
often seems like he doesn't even have to try.
Mark Wahlberg, in his first impressive turn since 1997's "Boogie Nights," is
absolutely fabulous as the conflicted Sgt. Barlow, a man who, at first, shows
very little compassion to the fates of the people around him, until he puts
the death and destruction around him into context with his own life back
home, where his sweet wife (Liz Stauber) is eagerly awaiting his arrival.
Equipped with the most powerful, humane character in the whole film, Wahlberg
fits the role perfectly, and goes even further with it.
In slighter roles, Ice Cube is fine as Sgt. Elgin, but not given nearly as
much chance to satisfactorily develop a character, while Spike Jonze
(arguably the fourth king) is on hand basically for comic relief. Luckily,
Jonze is often quite amusing, and likable enough that his antics never fully
wear out their welcome.
Jamie Kennedy, who seems to always get stuck with the supporting roles (aside
from the first two "Scream" films), is more memorable here than in the recent
"Bowfinger," and has a few hysterically funny scenes in which he acts
alongside Nora Dunn. In a film inundated with male performers, it is Dunn who
is, by far, the standout. Sassy, high-spirited, and portrayed with
pitch-perfect professionalism, it is the foul-mouthed, but wisely
uncaricaturized character of news reporter Adriana Cruz that is the most
noteworthy, and it would be criminal for the Academy to forget Dunn when the
nominations are announced next February.
"Three Kings" might have been nothing more than a passable diversion had the
film not be handled with such technical creativity and skill. The major
plotline, about four men attempting to possess Kuwaiti gold, is not very
important or interesting on its own, but interweaved with writer-director
David O. Russell's underlying themes concerning human compassion and
kindness, the film really does have a reason for being. Although imperfect,
"Three Kings" has enough vigor and intelligence to satisfy both audiences
that prefer action, and those that enjoy more thought-provoking fare.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman