*Three Kings (R)
Bold, adventurous and in-your-face, Three Kings brings to mind Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. for its brash irreverence, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocaplyse Now for its stylistic filmmaking, though it is not as great as either of those films.
That's because of the ironic distance required to make any kind of art or commentary out of George Bush's infamous and short-lived Gulf War. In keeping with the surreal quality of that televised war game, designed to show off our big guns and assure our domination of the world oil market, Three Kings borrows and exploits commercial and popular images of the time (1991), and uses them to illustrate the crass commerciality of the war and the narrow perception at home of the damage wrought to Iraqi citizens by our carpet bombing and our premature pullout there, following the liberation of Kuwait.
In Three Kings, the main characters, four American soldiers, set off on the biggest adventure of their service tenure in the Middle East after the war with Iraq is officially declared over. Because they haven't seen any action and don't really know why they are there or what they have accomplished, the four set out into the Iraqi desert to capture the stash of gold bricks Saddam Hussein has stolen from Kuwait -- a secret mission they figure will only take a few hours to accomplish, and will make their retirement from the military lucrative.
What follows, however, is a bizarre, often farcical adventure that pits the American soldiers against Saddam's angered and embittered military, and places them face to face with the civilians the U.S. government has so abruptly abandoned.
Director-writer David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey) has penned a tight, provocative script that combines some of the best elements of a good war film (conflicts of duty, honor and humanity) with heavy doses of contemporary social commentary. Remarkably, he does this without coming off as heavy-handed, except for a few instances -- they didn't really need to pour a can of oil down Mark Wahlberg's throat to make a point about America's interests in Kuwait. The dark humor written into the script, delivered perfectly by Russell's grizzled cast, and some dazzling photography save the film from the fate of ponderousness.
The ensemble cast at the center of the film couldn't be better. George Clooney leads the impromptu squadron as Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates, cynical, worn-out and two weeks from retirement. Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube play reservists with dead-end jobs back home, called up for the war. And Spike Jonze is Pvt. Conrad Vig, an overgrown juvenile delinquent from Texas who alternates between a sort of lovable stupidity and delirious combat lust. Three Kings works as a buddy film as well, bringing together the disparate strands of these four characters' personalities and revealing more about each of them to the audience as they grow to trust one another.
It is perfectly fitting that a main player in the film's plot is an American television reporter, Adriana Cruz, played with spit and vinegar by Nora Dunn. At times absurd in her zeal to get a good story, Cruz ultimately has a heart and a lot of guts. Her presence in the story reminds us, once again, how little we knew of what was happening in the Gulf War, how sanitized was the television coverage we were fed like some large-scale video game.
Three Kings disturbed me all over again, and comforted me in an odd way. I couldn't help but think, sitting in the darkened theater, that I hoped George Bush got the chance to see it.