Three Kings (1999) dir, David O Russell
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze, Ice Cube
By Alan Bacchus
David O Russell’s now legendary on set behaviour notwithstanding, he’s a fantastic filmmaker, and Three Kings, a tonally ambitious black comedy/ action film is one of the great political satires of the past 15 years.
It’s the end of the first Iraq War, an event signified by the absurd first line from Mark Wahlberg “are we shooting people?”, after which Wahlberg’s characer Sgt Troy Barlow hits a shooting duck Iraqi in the chest from far far away. After a rather fun rock and roll montage sequence portraying the victory like the US just won the Super Bowl, we’re also introduced to Major Archie Gates (Clooney), Sgt Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Pvt Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) who, using a treasure map in found in a captured Iraqi soldier’s ass, go awol in search of Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of Gold.
The foursome (yeah, it should really be called ‘Four Kings’) find Saddam’s once hidden bunker and the cooperation of the freed Iraqi citizens who help them move the gold bars. But when the Saddam’s soldiers attack the citizens, the Bush-ordered cease fire prevents them from intervening. Caught been personal ethics, military duties and their own monetary greed Gates and the gang gradually turn themselves into a sort of Seven Samurai fighting for the freedom of the Iraqis.
The opening act is especially inspired. The introduction of the US presence in Iraq and the almost casuality-free easy victory on the part of the Americans over Hussein’s army is characterized with sharp absurd humour. Same with the global connectness of Iraq with American culture. The site of Iraqi soldiers helping the three Americans load gold bars into Louis Vutton bags, for example, or the room full of exotic automobiles Gates gets to choose from to help rescue Barlow from capture are examples of the pitch perfect absurdities of that war. Barlow’s absurdly comic phone call to his wife using a found junk cell in his makeshift cell typifies the measured balance between comedy, political commentary and disturbing violence and torture.
The men on a mission actually begins like a refashioning of Kelly’s Heroes – that is, a group of dissillusioned soldiers looking to score a buck to spite the war. It’s a great film to compare and contract. In 1970, politics were much different. For Heroes, it was during Vietnam and it reflects the distinctly 60’s government-hating attitude of liberals. In Russell’s film in the second and third acts the character find their heart and their principles, stripping itself of the 60’s cynicism toward new millenium global activism.
When the Kings turn good and move toward the right side responsibility to military and country, the film threatens to lose it’s edge. Miraculously the satire remains, and at the same time we’re also treated to a number of thrilling action sequences and a heartbreaking series of events in the finale. The mortar sequence sequence in particular is beautifully shot by innovative DP Newton Thomas Sigel and edited by Robert Lambert. And the final moments of Pvt Vig are surprisingly emotional.
And Cudos to George Clooney who managed to hide his well publicized displeasure with his director delivering his first real ‘George Clooney’ performance outside of ER. It was also a great year for Spike Jonze, who turned in some fine acting chops, before he went on to direct the equally wonderful Being John Malkovich that year. It's interesting to see how the satire plays in light of the new Iraqi War which by contrast is a clusterfuck of enormous proportions - an added layer of depth and poignancy to an already intellectually stimulating film.
‘Three Kings’ is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video