Three Kings (1999)

D: David O. Russell
S: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube

Strange combination of war movie and action film which plays like a cross between Platoon and Kelly's Heroes, a serio-comic elaboration on themes of heroism and the schizm between personal and social morality in a time of crisis. Distinguished by an unusual, often inventive visual style and some tonal oscillation, it received inexplicable plaudits from a range of critics and audiences. It is ultimately most interesting simply on the technical level, falling, as it does eventually, on the side of rather conventional interpretation of the American moral imperative despite purporting to challenge it, or at least raise some doubts.

It begins splendidly with a shocking scene in the bright desert which introduces us to Mark Wahlberg, one of four American soldiers who will become involved in a quest to retrieve Kuwaiti gold following the cessation of hostilities in the Gulf War. The film continues to throw up unexpected moments of casual brutality and callousness on the part of its heroes, and though true villainy is reserved for the Iraqui aggressor (more Saddam himself than the enemy army, mind), the film is certainly less jingoistic than many of its generic forebears insofar as characterisation is concerned (it is certainly a vast improvement over Saving Private Ryan on this level). Yet it is still less cynical than Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket about militarism in general, and less hellish than Platoon or Apocalypse Now (or even The Thin Red Line) as a depiction of war. Though director David O. Russell and co-writer John Ridley are evidently aware of the ironies thrown up by the Gulf War as a conflict (the 'media-war', the 'weekend warrior' syndrome, the US's ambiguous prior relationship with Iraq, etc), it is clear that it is not a particularly subversive film even if it does poke fun at gung-ho attitudes.

The plot is actually a loose collection of picaresque scenes which arise as the characters go in search of the gold and try to take it out of Iraqui-controlled territory. They meet a variety of pro and anti-Saddam characters who populate the landscape like surrealist symbols, eventually doing more good than harm despite their nominally selfish aims. Various events transpire (which I wouldn't dream of revealing here) which eventually distract them from the gold and have them resort to more conventional heroism revolving around Iraqui dissidents, and, in an all-too old-fashioned finale, choosing to do right rather than pull off the caper (even Kelly's Heroes gave its characters that much motivated self-interest). It jumps between violent drama and knockabout comedy with alarming regularity, and this does keep you on edge to at least a certain extent. It is certainly difficult to know who will survive and who won't, and thus the sense of danger is quite palpable at times, but the comic scenes are often so strident that they threaten to prove a distraction rather than a mordantly humorous undercurrent (as they were in MASH).

Too many scenes resolve themselves with a reinforcement of American values rather than a challenge to them though. Though moments within scenes or stretches of dialogue attempt to throw the questions of morality into relief, the balance is definitely in favour of both American military involvement in Kuwait and American superiority in general. Take for example the lengthy torture scene where Wahlberg is subjected to physical duress by an Iraqui soldier. Though he is shown to have passionate motivations and a morally understandable point of view, the Iraqui is ultimately portrayed as a vengeful sadist, with Wahlberg concluding the proceedings with a show of mercy right out of a Hollywood western. Though one might hope that it reflects a change in attitude from the apathetic, amoral character we meet in the opening scene, it plays more like a display of smug magnaminity than a deeply felt conviction. The same holds for most of the rest of it, and by the time it reaches its climax, there is never any doubt about how these characters will behave and that they serve the greater moral good.

Visually though, it is fascinating to watch. The desert tones provide an excellent showcase for cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, even though the film is mostly shot with grainy stock (which actually works stylistically, strangely enough). Russell enlivens some of the action scenes with a combination of traditional hi-octane stuff and unusual slow-motion (it's not Sam Peckinpah, but it does occasionally increase the tension and the sense of pain and violence). There's also a variety of camera styles, including standard blocking and more improvisational, free-roaming scenes which maintain visual interest. If the truth be told, it is really these stylistic contrivances which make the film seem so different, and, equally truthfully, the style really does compensate for a lot.

There are some edgy moments and some nice little satirical jabs in there. The film does successfully cast a skeptical eye over some of the more extremely jingoistic representations of the American military, and the performances are generally fun. There is a nice variety of action, it moves fast, and there is plenty to enjoy. It is not quite the masterpiece it has been made out to be though, eventually representing a triumph of style over content rather than the maturation of the action film or the apex of the Gulf War film. It is easy to miss amid the noise and haste, but there is a very conventional story in here with little that is genuinely original and nothing that is truly subversive. However, there is enough to make it worth watching, and it will prove both entertaining and at least somewhat thought-provoking for casual viewers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.