David O. Russell
9/10 (weak characterization)
One of the most under-rated films when it came out, this film has aged extremely well and picked up its due acclaim among critics. However, I still get the feeling that it slips under the radar when talking about the best films of the 90s, or even the last twenty years, or the best war movies ever. So that’s why I’m spending the time to publicize it here.
“Three Kings” was director Russell’s first mainstream studio production, and he brought an independent feel from his first two movies (“Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting with Disaster”) that, along with the unconventional story angle, really brings a freshness to the war genre. It’s a movie that takes place just after the first Gulf War ends, when four soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) learn of millions of dollars in Kuwaiti gold that has been hidden in an Iraqi bunker and is ripe for the picking. Amid this simple heist premise, the protagonists get embroiled in the brutal aftermath of the war. After following Bush I’s advice to rebel, thus helping to destabilize Saddam’s regime while the war was being fought, the Shias have now been abandoned by U.S. troops and must face the blowback of Saddam’s soldiers without any chance of salvation. Clooney et al. come across a rebel band that is struggling to escape to Iran before they are annihilated. Not able to abandon them (the limits of their morality apparently reach only so far), Clooney’s Archie Gates and the others decide to help them escape.
David O. Russell has done a pretty impressive thing here, by taking a very superficial premise and layering it with dramatic moral conundrums. Here the audience comes face to face with all sides of the conflict: U.S. soldiers who feel that the Iraqis are ungrateful, Saddam’s soldiers who are loyal only out of fear, and Shia insurgents who are tired of being oppressed. Russell takes what could easily be a light subject popcorn flick and makes it into a weighty treatise on the moral ambiguity of war. The highlight of this vein is when Mark Wahlberg’s naive Troy Barlow is being tortured by his Iraqi Army counterpart, a man who he finds out is just like him, with the exception that his family has been killed by an errant U.S. bomb that fell on Baghdad in the beginning of the war. The message seems to be throughout the film that however you feel about war, whether you love it or hate it, you cannot take it lightly. You cannot look at it (as Gates’ half-squad does at the beginning of the story) as merely an opportunity. That makes you a sociopath.
It’s this message, plus the acting, plus the actual plot that raises “Three Kings” a step above other war movies, and other films in general. The cinematography too is impeccable, shot with a washed-out sun-bleached look that makes you squint right alongside Clooney and Wahlberg. There are other sequences involving shooting, bombs and bullets penetrating body cavities that I promise have not been seen before this film — the style is completely original.
But despite all of the fascinating camera tricks and visceral action sequences, and despite the inevitable laughs (especially from first-time actor and long-time director Spike Jonze’s Conrad Vig), this movie is not fluff. It’s this unique blend of genre — a drama/action/comedy/satire — that makes the movie good. And the fact that Russell makes the blend actually work makes it great. In fact, just talking about it now I want to give it a 10, because it’s that special. But then I remember that it lacks character development, its only flaw.
Let’s take a moment and view the Best Picture/Director nominees from that same year´s “Academy” awards, because “Three Kings” was as good or better than all of them: “American Beauty” (winner): as good. “Cider House Rules”: as good. “The Insider”: better. “The Sixth Sense”: as good. “The Green Mile”: don’t make me laugh. Of course this entire hypothetical is null and void because by far the best movie that year, “Fight Club,” wasn’t even nominated (!), winning only for “adapted screenplay.” What a joke.
In short, see this movie if you haven’t already. If you have seen it, see it again, because it doesn’t get old. And the subject is as timely now as it ever was. I have a feeling I’ll be able to say the same thing in 50 years.
26 March 2010