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Three Kings, the first major motion picture to deal with the Persian Gulf War*, feels ragged, chaotic, confused, unpredictable, funny, sad, and conflicted.

It feels like real life.

And forget about feeling: Three Kings is good, a movie that is disquieting and entertaining, bothersome and exhilarating, at the same time. It is a serious film that never loses either its sense of humor or its perspective.

The story gets moving through a caper, taking place in March ’91 as America and its allies sweep across southern Iraq in the wake of the peace agreement that ends the Persian Gulf War. Soldiers Barlow, Elgin and Vig—played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze—take from an Iraqi P.O.W. a map of bunkers where Saddam Hussein is hiding goods stolen from Kuwait…including gold. Gold that they can’t quite admit to themselves that they want.

A soon-to-retire Special Forces soldier, Archie Gates (George Clooney), learns of the soldiers’ plans and doesn’t bust them, as they suspect, but becomes their leader. “Saddam stole it from the Kuwaitis; I have no problem stealing it from Saddam,” Gates admits as they really start to plan.

But once the soldiers get to a bunker town, everything grows more complicated. They run into skirmishes between Iraqi soldiers and rebels, trying to use the post-war chaos (and the presence of Americans whom, because of the peace agreement, the Iraqis technically aren’t allowed to shoot at) to overthrow Saddam’s government. Because one thing leads to another — summing it up would make it sound trite and would be unfair to this film — Gates, Elgin and Vig escape with both gold and Iraqi refugees.

And without Barlow, who has been captured and delivered to the dreaded Republican Guard.

Eventually, the main characters have three goals: get the refugees to safety, get Barlow to safety, and get themselves to safety with their gold.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is quite rightly annoyed that four of its soldiers have gone AWOL, and driven TV reporter Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) demands that her chaperone secretly take her to where Gates and company are hunting for the gold.

Three Kings changes in tone during that time—from a comedy with dramatic moments to a drama with funny moments. This is done with a crazy assurance by writer-director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster) from a story by John Ridley, who wrote Oliver Stone’s bleakly funny and cynical U-Turn.

It’s early on that Three Kings is as close to fun-and-games as it gets. (The first piece of music in the film is a song called “I Just Want To Celebrate.”) While on the road to the bunker, the soldiers skeet-shoot with footballs, some rigged with explosives, as targets. The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” is heard for the umpteenth time in a film. Other soldiers gleefully tell tall tales to Cruz and spirit her away into the desert to keep her out of Gates’ hair.

It’s as the secret mission to steal gold goes through twists and turns that the movie grows quieter, more subtle, even intimate. The movie is still funny, but there’s pain in it, shown most strikingly late in the film when a wounded soldier has to have an emergency air valve stuck in his chest to keep his punctured lung from collapsing.

This all leads to a finale with morally compromised characters trying to do the right thing, a conflict that occurs because both sides in the conflict are partly correct…and one last chuckle as the audience leaves the theater.

That’s the overall feeling I got from watching Three Kings, but this film surprised, intrigued and/or tickled me in so many of its little details:

The clunky early-’90s cell phones…

…A soldier in the Republican Guard eating a very American Slim Jim…

…Vig’s selective memory…

…The propaganda paintings of Saddam Hussein in each Iraqi town…

…A proper use of the fun early ’90s rap tune “The Power” (“So, peace/ Stay off my back/ Or I will attack/ And you don’t want that”)…

…Funny use of a Chicago song…

…The almost impossible-to-describe score by Carter Burwell, the Coen Brothers’ composer, who writes a weird blending of Middle Eastern-like melodies, electric guitars, and machine-like sounds…

…The hysterical Jamie Kennedy from Scream as a soldier who takes to wearing night-vision goggles in the day because he had no chance to use them during the war (“They sort of work” in the daylight, he says)…

…The huge piles of appliances, blue jeans and CDs hoarded from Kuwait — useless away from electricity or from consumers, stolen just because they’re from the West and considered valuable…

…and the insane fact that this is the second film this year with both Saddam Hussein and George Clooney; the other one was South Park.

And even in the midst of the action and jokes and flashy camera work, Three Kings is surprisingly good as a character study.

Mark Wahlberg, as Barlow, still seems to me like a huge puppy dog, personality-wise; he’s a big and potentially scary guy who really has love in his heart, and this film makes good use of that. When Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers, the interrogators both appeal to that love in him and use it against him. One of them forces Barlow to imagine his wife and child killed by war, as the interrogator’s wife and child were killed by war.

Elgin — as played by Ice Cube, a rap singer and an actor (Boyz N the Hood) — is religious, observant and reverent. “I have the ring of Jesus fire to guide my decisions,” he says with quiet confidence early on, and he ends up understanding the Iraqi refugees who worship God in their own way, as does he.

A real find is Spike Jonze as Vig; Jonze pulls off playing what could have (and still is, partly) a stereotype of a trailer trash hick. He succeeds at both some of the funnier scenes—like when we witness a moment from Vig’s life before the war—and the gentler scenes, when Vig reveals a soft side maybe even he didn’t know he had. His encounters with Arab culture and the Muslim religion help broaden his view of the world. And another of Vig’s big lessons comes in a quiet moment, when Vig tells Gates he can’t fulfill his mission because he’s scared. “You do what you’re scared of, and get the courage after you do it.” “That seems kind of backwards,” the slowly learning Vig says. “That’s the way it works,” Gates admits.

And Gates himself, as played by George Clooney, grows as well: his battle-weary cynicism that allowed him to lie, cheat and steal without qualms is slowly tempered, making him realize he can help somebody other than himself or his men. Clooney does all of this with assurance, plus a strangely appealing sort of weariness, a quality Clooney has that got a little lost in the little-too-tidy war film The Peacemaker (and likely was buried by Batman and Robin, which I hope never to see).

Three Kings throws in a lot of what I like to see in a movie: it is a film in love with being a film. It works as both a stylized piece of filmmaking and a weird slice-of-life; it has verisimilitude, down to showing us exactly what happens to a body that has just been struck by a bullet. And, finally, it’s a movie with a brain, an intelligent film that tries not to oversimplify its many messages.

Three Kings, you see, has a nice reminder: life is a work in progress. We’re always learning, always changing. Drama is about learning those lessons, too, but sometimes the lessons feel too easy in drama — since a lesson has to be simplified to fit into a dramatic construct, whether a movie, a play, or a sitcom. But you feel the characters of Three Kings learning lessons, and not in an easy or pat way.

It is not an easy or pat movie. Thankfully.

* Oct. 26, 1999

Correction by Christopher Walsh: Sorry, My Bad


Corrected I stand.

In a continuing effort to get my facts right while doing my opinion writing, I admit I forgot that the strong, surprising film Three Kings is not the first major motion picture to deal with the Persian Gulf War. I forgot because I hadn’t seen Courage Under Fire (1996), directed by Ed Zwick and starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon in his first war film.

I’m just reciting those movie facts in order not to write a full review this week, because A) I need a small break, B) there’s enough entertainment going on locally that I can fill up this section easily this week, and C) I have plenty of other things to do anyway.

I’ll be back as soon as I feel up to it. Stay well, all.

– Chris