Director: David O. Russell
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze
I have never been to war. Shocking, I know. Sometimes when I watch a war film, especially one made in the last thirty to forty years, I wonder if it’s realistic. Obviously, I have no way of knowing. Parts of Three Kings really felt realistic to me; I, as a total and complete outsider, watched it and couldn’t help but wonder if that was what parts of Gulf War I were really like. But then, of course, I remember that I have no frame of reference, so I’m basically talking out of my ass.
It’s the end of Gulf War I, 1991. Saddam Hussein has signed a treaty ending the war and starting a cease fire. Soldier Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) finds a surrendering Iraqi who has a map hidden up his butt. Taking it to his friend Conrad (Jonze) and superior Elgin (do I just say Cube here?), they are joined by Special Forces soldier Archie Gates (Clooney) as they pursue what they believe to be stolen Kuwaiti treasure. What was originally meant to be a half-day excursion to find some gold turns into something more when the foursome becomes more deeply embroiled in the ongoing conflict between Saddam’s Republican Army and the rebel uprisings.
Three Kings came out in an interesting time in America’s relationship with Iraq – more than half a dozen years since the end of Gulf War I, but only a few years away from Gulf War II. Given that this is still a conflict that upsets the American political landscape to this day, this was possibly one of the only windows in which such a film could have been released. The public would have been willing to listen to a story that has many sympathetic Iraqi characters in 1999; I doubt, even today, that most of the American public would be incapable of “sitting through” such a tale. To me, that’s Three Kings greatest success. The politics of America in the Middle East has become incredibly complicated, and there is a great deal of negative feelings that still exist. To watch a film that shows empathy from American soldiers towards Iraqi people is heartening (even if, to my cynical self, it does seem a bit fairy tale). To take characters that start as naïve, superficial, and greedy, and give them a compassionate heart against a politically charged background is a very fulfilling emotional journey to undergo.
Having said that, however, I don’t think Three Kings is entirely successful as a film. It feels chaotic. Now, before you go yelling at me that ‘but it’s war and war is chaotic!’ let me explain what I mean. Yes, the battle sequences feel chaotic, but rightly so. That is a chaos that works, mostly achieved through gritty handheld camera work and smart editing. But Three Kings has a problem with split focus that keeps all its myriad components from gelling as well as they should. The opening half hour is played for fairly broad, black comedy, painted so right from the get-go with Wahlberg’s question of “So are we shooting or what?” when encountering a surrendering soldier who may or may not be hostile. This humor continues to pop up throughout the film, usually when least expected. It’s funny, but when you contrast it with a scene where truly horrible things are happening and the film is trying to underline a serious moral message, the comedy feels out of place. If anything, the constant humor took away the gravitas that the ending so desperately aspired to. I couldn’t buy into the emotional heft as much as I wanted to because the movie had been too zany prior to that point. More than that, the film takes its damn time establishing said emotional heft. We don’t really start to understand the everyday implications the Gulf War has had on Iraqi citizens until about halfway through the film, and that leaves our main characters only the last third to quarter of the film to process the information and perform a moral 180; not much time at all.
Additionally, Three Kings was a bit of a tease. There were threads and stories that I found compelling that were not developed as much as I would have preferred. Of course, that’s most likely a matter of personal taste, but of all the events in Three Kings, I was most interested in the sequence where Wahlberg’s character, taken hostage by members of the Republican Army, is interrogated and tortured. Slowly, he begins to realize just what price the war has had on Iraqi citizens as his torturer tells him how his young wife and child were killed in a bombing. I found the connection between Wahlberg’s Troy Barlow and his Iraqi counterpart fascinating. It was one of the strongest psychological angles of the film, pitting enemies against one another only to have them find common ground. But then, as soon as Barlow had started to realize this, as soon as I felt we were getting to some really meaty, interesting issues, it was over. Wait, what happened there? Perhaps it’s simply an issue I have with most dramedies in general. By dividing overall focus, I end up feeling satisfied with neither the drama nor the comedy. There are certainly a few exceptions to this rule, but not many.
The acting performances are all good. George Clooney was still shooting ER when Three Kings was made, and apparently split his work week between the two projects: four days on the film, three days on the television show. Clooney is an actor I was incredibly skeptical of when he started off as Dr. Doug Ross on ER, mostly because of all the ridiculous hype he got because he’s “dreamy.” Three Kings was a transition project for him, his attempt to prove that he could hack it in films just as well as TV. He’s largely successful as a leading man in Three Kings, and his Archie Gates here as many shades of Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven (heck, they’re both heist movies), which was only two years after this film. I like George Clooney a great deal now because I respect him; I think he chooses smart projects that fit his acting talent very well. I do not think he’s the most talented actor who’s ever lived, and I maintain that in most of his roles, he’s essentially playing slightly different versions of the same role, but the thing is, he does it well. He’s very much the new Cary Grant, another actor who I believe simply played variations on the same character, but was very smart in that he played that character very well. (Plus they share the suave thing in spades.) Anyway, in Three Kings, we have one of the first examples that Clooney is capable of carrying a film as the leading man. Wahlberg and Cube (it amuses me to call him simply “Cube”) shed their singer backgrounds in a big way by proving themselves capable of playing soldiers who have to make a real emotional journey. Spike Jonze, however, is possibly most impressive as Conrad, a noob and a dim-wit who idolizes Barlow. In his first acting role in film, Jonze impresses, flat-out. If anything, I wish his character was given a bit more scope in the second half.
There was a preface to the film on the DVD I watched – which, I must add, looked like a very old DVD, printed at the very beginning of DVD technology. It explained that the director used alternate editing techniques and amped up color palettes in order to heighten the emotional experience of the film. It honestly made me snort with laughter. Has film technique altered so much in the last fifteen years ago that, back in 1999, the director had to actually explain to his audience that the bleach-drenched colors or slow-motion sequences or handheld camerawork or cutting to fantasy or flashback sequences was done on purpose and for cinematic effect? Three Kings still feels fresh today thanks to these effects; if anything, Russell was ahead of the curve (apparently). If anything, such a message feels like a modern day version of audiences becoming frightened when Justus D. Barnes fires his gun straight to camera in The Great Train Robbery in 1903 while the theater owner shouts at them that it’s not real.
I will also one more little tidbit about watching Three Kings. I mention above that I had an old DVD (from Netflix). The DVD was incapable of playing about 8 minutes of the film approximately half an hour in, in the scene where our four soldiers discover the bunker down the well. I had to skip most of that scene, picking up when they were leaving that village. I had little choice, as the DVD was completely freezing up, but I know I missed some important stuff there. So, take what I say with the proverbial grain of salt. And I will report the problem to Netflix.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10. Three Kings is a good film, but it is not great.