Three KingsBy Michael Frakes
Directed by David O. Russell
Running time: 115 minutes
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, and Jamie Kennedy
While it is not exactly a war movie, Three Kings may be the most definitive film we have yet to see about the Gulf War. There are no major battles or organized military efforts. Rather, we see only a few small conflicts that occur after the war has ended. It is basically an action/adventure film with many moments of well-placed humor -- it’s a good one, too. Three Kings also works on a deeper, thought-provoking level, as it effectively underlies the interplay of action and comedy with a strong political presence. The film addresses man’s brutal motivations in war and forces us to question the United States’ involvement in the Persian Gulf.
Three Kings marks David O. Russell’s third and perhaps strongest directing effort. His other works include Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. This latest effort is a creative and bold picture that shows us how exciting filmmaking can be. Russell brings up many issues concerning American foreign policy and human brutality in general, and he develops these ideas through the interaction of the film’s characters and action sequences. He presents his story through an original and effective visual style, combining a rough, grainy image with overwhelming brightness (we hardly ever see the sky -- only a big bright light). This lower resolution illustrates the rugged nature of war and the sense of confusion and distortion that accompany it. Such effects worked well in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. These exaggerated visuals also affect us physically, placing us in the blazing sun and blowing sand of the Iraqi desert. Three Kings accomplishes a lot with its camera and with the composition of its story. It’s a filmmaker’s movie, if you know what I mean.
The movie begins at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), come across a map that shows the location of a bunker that likely contains the gold bullion that Saddam’s troops had stolen from Kuwait. Special Forces officer Archie Gates (George Clooney) catches word of the map and offers to lead the soldiers in an unauthorized and self-beneficial plan to recover the gold.
The four American soldiers run into little opposition in their mission. When they reach the bunker, they are surprised to find Iraqi soldiers butchering those Iraqi citizens who had followed President Bush’s urging to rise against the government. After watching a mother murdered in front of them, the four Americans decide to help the Iraqi rebels to freedom.
There is not too much to the story here. Sure, Three Kings is the first film to address certain issues about the Gulf War and it does a good job of presenting them, but it has a very traditional plot structure. We’ve seen all of these character types before and it is not too hard to predict the film’s Hollywood ending.
However, it is great in its stylistic use of the camera and editing, and manages to show us many things that we have not seen before. For example, Three Kings dramatizes the powerful impact of a bullet. Here, the camera takes us inside a person’s body to show how a bullet can destroy an organ. It sounds ridiculous, but the scene works well to affect the viewer’s sensory reactions to ballistic violence.
Overall, the action sequences are well-structured and the film moves with great pace and composition. Russell often enhances the development of a scene and accentuates the impact of his dialogue by cutting the camera and allowing us to witness what is going in a character’s mind. When an Iraqi soldier explains to Barlow how his three-year-old son was killed in an American bombing mission, the camera cuts to a slow motion shot of a house collapsing on his baby’s crib.
Despite an often traditional and predictable plot, Russell catches us off guard from time to time. In one scene, after being captured by Iraqi forces, Barlow is thrown into a room filled with cellular phones. Unable to get through to the American forces, he resorts to calling his wife and after a minute of sweet-talking, he asks her to get him help.
The film presents a fierce image of humanity, especially in regards to warfare. It questions our motivations for entering the Gulf War (and any war for that matter) and examines our inability to aid the Iraqi citizens after the war had ended. During the torturing of an American soldier, an Iraqi asks why the U.S. became involved. The American replies that it was because Iraq had invaded Kuwait and “that is wrong.” The film also examines the media’s selfish and constant desire to see conflict, as presented through television war correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn). Asking the viewer to consider the civilian costs of war, Three Kings sympathizes with the Iraqi soldier who lost his boy in a bombing. The film doesn’t provide any exact viewpoints on these issues, but it forces us to think about them in a way that we usually overlook.
Three Kings is one of those movies that you might not like so much immediately after watching it, but that you start to like more and more as you think about it. I was most impressed by the way it uses its cinematic tools, particularly the camera, to move the film along in an exciting, funny, and enlightening manner. Three Kings is one of the most creative movies of the year. Check it out.