Three Kings (1999)
Directed by David O. Russell
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Mykelti Williamson, Cliff Curtis, Said Taghmaoui, Liz Stauber, Judy Greer.
1999 111 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, sex, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 4, 1999.
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.
©1999 by Dustin Putman