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THREE KINGS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy
Director:  David O. Russell
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  April 11, 2000

Film ****

What a glorious, chaotic, schizophrenic film is David O. Russell’s Three Kings.  It takes the viewers inside the insanity of war for almost two hours—some of it is hilarious, a la M.A.S.H., and some of it is positively horrifying.  The horror and the humor continually bounce off one another in a kind of surreal way, with each heightening the other.  And best of all, this was a film obviously made deliriously drunk with the joys of the art of cinema.

It invites us to take a closer look at the ending of last decade’s big military action, Desert Storm.  As the picture opens, the cease fire has been called, but not everyone’s clear on the message.  The American soldiers party down as the news crews with their cameras from back home call for take after take, trying to bring back exactly the perfect message of joy and self congratulation for a job well done.  Of course, the controversy would later become whether or not it was really a done job at all.  We got Saddam out of Kuwait, but left him in power in Iraq…and there’s been a price for that.

From the opening celebrations that erupt joyously (juxtaposed with one last war victim who happens to fall after the cease fire), the chaos abounds.  It is entirely an element of chance that our main characters, Archie Gates (Clooney),  Troy Barlow (Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Cube) and Conrad Vig (Jonze) come together.  During the surrender, where our troops try to overcome the language barrier by using pictures to show how nice giving up will be, Barlow discovers a map hidden in…well, you have to see it for yourself.  The map appears to lead to certain bunkers where Saddam might have hidden some $23 million in gold bullion he stole from Kuwait.  Soon the men hatch a plan, each for his own personal reasons:  they will seek out the gold under the guise of returning it to Kuwait, but instead, keep it for themselves.

Ironically, they find very little fight on their hands from the leftover Iraqi soldiers (which suits Barlow fine, who remarks how dumb it would be to get shot after the war was over) because they are too busy starving out regular Iraqi citizens.  One memorable image is of Saddam’s soldiers blowing up a milk truck as mothers weep for their starving babies.  Turns out, these Iraqis are suffering the wrath of Saddam, because they did as our President Bush suggested:  they rose up against him.  Trouble is, they expected support from our troops.  They never received any.

Thus enters the film’s moral crisis:  the men can easily walk away with the gold; nobody’s seriously trying to stop them.  But these people are dying in front of their eyes for fighting the same enemy they were there to fight…can they walk away from that?

Over the course of the picture, there is a lot more humor, a lot more in the way of disturbing images, and a surprising amount of intelligence and honesty, viewing the misery of war from all sides.  A highlight is when Barlow gets captured and tortured by an Iraqi soldier, who first wants to know what’s up with Michael Jackson.  The scene soon turns as each man expresses the pain the war has caused him.  It’s the age old propaganda problem:  we like to think what we do in war is always noble and heroic, and when we fight, we only kill soldiers and only destroy military targets, and there are no innocent victims.  Wrong.

David O. Russell’s picture really peels back the layers of the Gulf War, purposely demonstrating for us on film that there was quite a difference between the war brought to us on TV by our favorite sponsors, and the war the way it was actually played out.  History is a story written by the winners, and nowadays, with the help of the media, who told us how great we were to save the rich Kuwaitis, but failed to tell us about the Iraqi citizens left for slaughter because we didn’t remove a brutal dictator from power. 

His film is a visual masterpiece, using often darkly developed prints to counter the bright desert sun, which created color schemes that were both strange and yet, somehow more real than what we’re used to seeing on the big screen.  His script is full of barbs and witty observations, yet always manages to surprise the audience by the way he constantly re-defines his picture mid stream.  He covers all aspects of the war, with a visual style designed to heighten the chaos.  When fighting breaks out, he deliberately slows down the action so that an unreal amount of time elapses between shots fired and bullets finding home.  In a couple of instances, he goes so far as to take the camera inside the body to show the internal effects of gunshot wounds.

His cast is top notch and up to the challenge, too.  George Clooney provides a steadfast earnestness to his role as leader, and I maintain he’s still the closest actor we have in our day to a Cary Grant or James Stewart from days gone by.  Mark Wahlberg continues to impress, as does Ice Cube.  These actors help keep the chaos slightly grounded throughout—a necessary commodity to help curb the insanity ever so slightly.

In the end, the film invites us to think:  what would we do?  Can you put a price on responsibility, duty, and human life?  Is $23 million enough?  In war, decisions often have to be made in seconds, or less.  The impact of those decisions, however, tend to go on for much longer, as do the consequences.

Video ****

This may not be the first disc you grab to show off your system, simply because the film stocks and developing techniques achieve a look to this film that’s a little different than what we’re used to seeing.  Images are often of a high contrast nature…generally sharp, but often a little strange in terms of the coloring and contrast…again, an effect that was created purposely.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie from Warner to emphasize this fact, but for my money, the oddness of the imaging added to the overall effect and enjoyment of the picture.  This is a very good transfer, and nothing to cause the good folks at Warner worry or shame.

Audio ****

This is an excellent 5.1 track…one that makes good use of the split signal, FX subwoofer, and surrounds.  Even the musical score is opened up a little bit across the speakers for a fuller listening experience.  There are plenty of sudden bursts of action and mayhem to keep the signal strong and dynamic, and to make sure your back speakers are getting in on the action.  Dialogue is clear and consistent throughout, and the signals come across cleanly and sharply all the way.

Features ****

What a package!  The disc contains the trailer, a documentary, two full length commentary tracks, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Russell, his video journal (very good), a tour of the set, an interview with the DP Newton Thomas Sigel, extensive production notes, a look at the acting process with Ice Cube, and a stills gallery, along with some DVD ROM extras.  Oh, and there are some hidden Easter eggs along the way too, so happy hunting.

Summary:

The bottom line is, you really have to see Three Kings for yourself.  It’s so wonderfully cinematic that no amount of printed words can really convey the experience, or really prepare you for it that well.  It’s a unique war film that should be remembered both as a new staple in the genre and as one of the most creative and substantial films of the last decade.