Three Kings (1999)

David O. Russell’s Three Kings is an irreverent war comedy like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H*. It is also a sophisticated political farce that takes an openly critical view of American foreign policy, specifically in regards to our involvement in the Persian Gulf War. Three Kings has a mixture of tones and genres told in an unconventional style that may be off-putting to some viewers. I think it may be the best contemporary American war movie.

Set in 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War has ended, we see American soldiers celebrating. They claim victory for liberating Kuwait but the battles were short lived and the soldiers fell like they had little to do. When a map is discovered leading to the location of millions of dollars in Kuwaiti gold bullion, four Army reservists set out on an unsanctioned mission to find the gold.
Archie Gates (George Clooney) is the leader. He’s a cynical but intelligent officer who sees an opportunity to get rich and enlists the help of three reservists (played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) for the mission. Upon stealing the gold, the soldiers see the helplessness of the oppressed Iraqi civilians and decide to come to their aid and escort them to Iran for safety.

John Ridley’s story, originally titled Spoils of War, began as a cynical, hard-edged view of greed during war told in the manner of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Russell took the concept and turned it into political farce. What makes Three Kings so original is the juxtaposition of American consumerism and popular culture in the midst of war in an Arab country told with absurdist humor. An example of this occurs when an Iraqi soldier interrogates Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) about America’s involvement in the war. When Barlow responds with a pat answer about bringing stability to the region, the interrogator pours oil down his throat to show his belief that many speculate is the real reason for the war.

It would be easy to see Three Kings as a war comedy but it is more thoughtful than that. This is one of the few American movies to have a humane view of Arabs with respect for their culture as opposed to the usual derision that is shown. The versatile Cliff Curtis is an American educated Iraqi civilian who leads the citizens who want to be free of Saddam Hussein. He convinces the American soldiers to help them.

I talked about the unconventional style of Three Kings, which experiments with technique in a manner uncommon for Hollywood action movie. Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel go for a Xerox look incorporating bleached out colors and grainy film stock. Russell also uses a new trick that shows the trajectory of a bullet shot from a gun as it passes into the human body. We see what happens when a bullet is lodged inside the human cavity and how it damages a person that can lead to death.

There is enough action in Three Kings to make it appear to be a standard Hollywood blockbuster. The misleading trailer made it look that way. David O. Russell previously directed two successful comedies that hinted at a new sensibility. Three Kings is the demonstration of an artist taking the kinds of risks that may not make for a popular hit but should be seen as a great movie for future generations.

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