The war movie has been a staple in world cinema since its inception. From D.W. Griffith's 1915 landmark "The Birth of a Nation" to Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam tour-de-force "Apocalypse Now" to Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan," man's ability to destroy one another and all the consequences of those actions have made for some of the most compelling moments in the history of film.
That a firestorm of Gulf War pictures never made it to the cinema marketplace following the conflict is amazing to say the least. Fortunately, when the moment of truth finally arrived, director David O. Russell ("Flirting with Disaster") knew how powerful a story set in this piece of history could be. The result is the finely-tuned, unconventionally conventional "Three Kings."
Set during the cease-fire period following Iraq's surrender, "Three Kings" is actually a rather complex tale of corruption, greed, moral ground and the pursuit of a reason for being in the harsh post war desert of the Middle East. Knee deep in post-victory celebration, soldiers are going through the motions waiting for the war to officially end when a group of them confiscate a mysterious map from a captured Iraqi.
Behind closed doors (or tent flaps), Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jones) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) discover that the map's secret is, in all likelihood, the hiding spot for a boatload of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion still held by Saddam Hussein's forces. When George Clooney's Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates--a sarcastic and unimpressed veteran who would just like to get out of Dodge and retire--gets air of the group's find, the wheels start spinning and the covert action of a lifetime begins to unfold.
Under cover of drunken partying, Gates believes the group could slip away from their base, rendezvous at the Iraqi bunkers, grab the gold and get back safely unnoticed. Realizing that none of them have much to look forward to back in the real world without cash, they all agree to give it a shot.
With the cease-fire well underway, the quartet have no problem entering the Iraqi bunkers and finding what they have come for. When the troops decide to not only take the gold, but also free a group of rebellious Iraqi citizens who have been imprisoned, things take a violently bad turn. Unable to engage the enemy under the rules of the cease-fire, the four watch in horror as an Iraqi soldier kills a young woman in front of her husband and daughter.
Having seen enough, the four find themselves in a situation where they must either violate the peace agreement or simply watch unarmed citizens be killed by their own army. They choose the former.
Alone, barely armed and intent on saving as many people as possible, the soldiers attempt to flee with the refugees and the gold--something the Iraqi Republican Guard has some substantial issues with. The Iraqi troops waste little time in turning the situation around--capturing Sgt. Barlow and forcing the others underground. With the help of a group of Iraqi rebels, the remaining three must find a way to rescue Barlow and move the refugees safely across the border into Iran.
Besides the compelling nature of David O. Russell's story--as well as the charismatic performances of Clooney, Cube and Whalberg--what makes "Three Kings" so special is its truly independent spirit. With visual splendor and an unconventional sense of patriotism amidst the painful and sometimes inconsistent nature of right and wrong in the realm of armed combat (the impassioned exchange between Whalberg and his torturer [Said Taghmaoui] is among the most painful), Russell transcends the "Rambo" war movie that many may expect from its gung-ho trailer.
Instead of gratuitous battle sequences with nothing of substance to back them up, Russell concentrates on character and the fragility of life through even the most seasoned combat vets. More admirable still, rather than portray the Iraqi soldiers as evil incarnates with no sense of moral reason, they are shown too as people with lives and families that they wish to protect at all costs.
From frame one, the cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel is also unmistakable. The washed-out look and grainy feel of the picture puts the audience right into the harsh and unmerciful desert heat and demands the viewer to become entrenched in the horror around them.
What "Three Kings" shows more powerfully than anything else is that a conventional film does not have to lower itself to the lowest common denominator in order to prove thought provoking and entertaining.
* MPAA rating: R, for graphic war violence, language and some sexuality.
George Clooney: Archie Gates
Mark Wahlberg: Troy Barlow
Ice Cube: Chief Elgin
Spike Jonze: Conrad Vig
Nora Dunn: Adriana Cruz
Jamie Kennedy: Walter
In association with Village Roadshow Pictures/Village-A.M. Film Partnership, a Coast Ridge/Atlas Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director David O. Russell. Producers Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell. Executive producers Kelley Smith-Wait, Gregory Goodman, Bruce Berman. Screenplay David O. Russell. Story John Ridley. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor Robert K. Lambert. Costumes Kym Barrett. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Catherine Hardwicke. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.