'Three Kings': THR's 1999 Review

Three Kings - H - 1999
An action-adventure laced with incendiary humor but a movie that wants to explore race, politics, war, the media and U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.

On Oct. 2, 1999, Warner Bros. unveiled the Middle East actioner Three Kings in theaters, where it would go on to gross $107 million globally. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

Three Kings is a hugely ambitious movie. Writer-director David O. Russell, whose previous films were the dark comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, not only has designed an action-adventure laced with incendiary humor but a movie that wants to explore race, politics, war, the media and U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.

In large measure, he pulls it off with breathtaking aplomb. Plus, this Village Roadshow production is the kind of male-oriented film Warner Bros. historically has marketed and distributed well. So Three Kings appears headed for box office glory.

The story takes place in the Iraqi desert in the days immediately following the Gulf War cease-fire in March 1991. Russell swiftly establishes this as a morally chaotic and totally surreal world.

Bored soldiers — who mostly marked time while high-tech specialists made Saddam Hussein cry uncle — drink and party. Reservists are restless for action, while cynical war veterans look to grab their share of the spoils of a conflict few understand. Then a rogue foray into enemy territory by four U.S. soldiers, inspired solely by greed, sets off a chain of events that all but restarts the war.

A map falls into these soldiers' hands that they believe will lead them to a cache of Kuwaiti gold bullion stolen by the Iraqi army. Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (George Clooney) is weeks away from retirement and sick of taking orders from men who've never fired a gun in combat. Army Reserve Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is as eager for action as he is to get money for his wife and child back in Detroit.

Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is a religious man who believes himself protected from harm by Jesus Christ's "ring of fire." And Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), an ill-educated redneck, will follow his pal Troy anywhere, even into combat.

The men illegally requisition a Humvee and take off at dawn with the hope of returning by lunch. Their only seeming obstacle is TV journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who wants to file a real story rather than the canned news handed to her by the U.S. military.

The AWOL soldiers find the gold quickly enough but are confronted by a horror show. Iraqi soldiers let them steal Saddam's gold without much resistance. But their willingness to continue butchering and torturing civilians in front of the Yanks' eyes outrages what is left of their moral sense. The soldiers are compelled, quite against their will, to act as heroes.

Russell flavors all this is with a heady streak of dark comedy. The action takes place in a desert littered with stolen consumer goods. Luxury cars and limos, purloined by our protagonists, race along desert roads jammed with terrified refugees. Underground bunkers are crammed with cell phones, stereos, watches, TV sets (including one playing the Rodney King beating) and murals of a benevolent Saddam Hussein kissing babies.

As engaging as the story is, Russell creates an aesthetic distance between his audience and the action through highly stylized touches and loopy humor that emphasize war's surreal horrors. The whole movie is filmed in high-contrast, desaturated colors on grainy film stock. Images pop up that depict what is in characters' minds or visceral shots of the damage a bullet can do to organs and tissue. A scene of torture devolves into a debate between an Iraqi interrogator and his American captive about U.S. adventurism in the Arab world.

These discussions sometimes fit awkwardly into the grim comedy and bloody battles. Nevertheless, they also add a political dimension to the mayhem, making Three Kings a kind of postmodern Catch-22.

Clooney's sardonic presence anchors the mad adventure, while Ice Cube highlights the basic American values that get lost in such a landscape. Wahlberg's character is all instinct and little thought until forced to confront the hypocrisy of his and his country's actions. And Jonze, the award-winning music video director, proves himself an actor with a gift for zany humor. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Sept. 22, 1999.