Three Kings (1999) ** 1/2
Written and directed by David O. Russell from a story by John Ridley. Photography, Newton Thomas Sigel. Editing, Robert K. Lambert. Production design,, Catherine Hardwicke. Music, Carter Burwell. Producers, Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell. Cast: George Clooney (Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Sgt. Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Staff Sgt. Chief), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Jamie Kennedy (Walter), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Cliff Curtis (Amir), Said Taghmaoui (Captain Sa'id) et al. A Warners release. 114 minutes. R (language, shocking violence, sex)
In a film as with all else, novelty for novelty's sake isn't much. But then again, novelty of any kind may open doors for other creators and works. David O. Russell's first feature, the low-budget Spanking the Monkey, was daringly original. It and made the writer-director more than just promising. His next film was Flirting With Disaster, neither daring nor a minor landmark, but clever (though without brilliance or depth), inventive (but not really original), and amusing.
The title Three Kings is ironic. It calls to mind We Three Kings from Orient Are. But these kings don't bear gifts. They are taking gold away. In any case they are four, not three. A redneck yahoo from Texas is excluded from the title --which goes to show how logic is sacrificed at the altar of catchy titles.
Desert Storm is ending. Is the Gulf War really over? Is there a truce? What's up, Doc? It's all muddled, but the U.S. soldiers are celebrating anyway their return-home-to be. They live it up like fraternity boys, with booze and clowning and rap music. It's a near-orgy, minus sex. But wait a moment. Special Forces Captain Gates (George Clooney, in fine mettle) is in a tent, vigorously copulating with the female assistant to Adriana. Adriana is an ace reporter for a TV network (invented).
The lively though not lovely start also includes encounters with "ragheads," captives treated like dirt, Iranians in uniform and others. Sometimes the soldiers shoot first, then wonder if the natives were friendly (anti-Saddam), foes or simply guys surrendering Ugh.
All this sets the tone. Mostly, it introduces the plot. An anal (don't ask) document on (in) a captive officer turns out to be the map of gold bars looted by Iraq from Kuwait. That's the stuff dreams (cf. The Maltese Falcon and Treasure if Sierra Madre) are made of. Neat, ain't it?
The next, inevitable step is for Captain Gates to lead a quartet of men (the old movie mix of motley guys) to the "liberation" of the golden stash. It could buy endless visits to Disney, Inc. at home.
Then comes non-stop action, compounded by a baffling mix of elite troops still faithful to Saddam --or still afraid of him, deserters, an anti-Saddam Resistance (which was news to me), innocent women and children caught in cross-fire, underground treasure troves. Not only gold bars but Kuwaiti jewelry, absurd refrigerators, radios and tutti quanti). Plus occasional people from whatever is the "other" side being interrogated under torture. And later, another stash, this time of luxurious, shiny Kuwaiti limousines and sports cars. Enough, enough.
In addition, the Americans are being stalked by news-supergal Adriana (and her cameraman). She's been Emmy-nominated multiple times, but has always been a bridesmaid, never a bride. This is her big chance: The Scoop.
Shot with a real (or a pretend) 16 millimiter hand-held movie camera (unless it is supposed to be video), the sights have that typical graininess, jerkiness and relative un-sharpness of news footage. A clever idea which adds immediacy to the action. But analyze it and you'll have to conclude that it's still the old Eye of God, except that it is not mounted on a studio tripod. (There are also shots of sea-birds soaked in oil as a result of blown-up oil wells by the Iraqis. Looks to me like footage from the Werner Herzog apocalyptic documentary).
In addition (again) the four soldiers must be AWOL, given the time frame. In re-addition, we get the old cliche characterizations of the group's individuals.
From the point of view of the narrative, the well-intentioned desire to show the madness and chaos of war and its aftermath results in much murkiness and confusion. The audiences of this movie will no doubt be heavy with young persons who were pre-teens or early teens during the Gulf War --and know next to nothing about it. I suppose that like most viewers of action flicks they don't ask themselves questions but bask in the physical scenes before their eyes. But those non-kids who do exercise their logic and whatever they know of history, are bound (as I did) to spend much time trying to figure out who's who,what and where.
Violence is most graphic, gory and too often gratuitous here. It is effective in its use of firearms, mines, poison gas, vehicles and all --but it lacks Sam Peckinpah's ballet-ism or even the montage of Bonnie and Clyde's slow-motion rain of bullets. Everything seems to be larger and faster than life. and faster. Sort it out if you can: most of the males, on all sides, are primitive or ferocious. So much for humanism.
The narrow subject is greed, which is OK. But, like a savage kind of M*A*S*H, there's a pretty continuous thread of comedy running through, with mixed results. And, shades of umpteen movies about fortune-hunting, the conclusion lapses into deja vu sentimentality. The three American survivors will give up their gold in exchange of authorities allowing a procession of "good" (read anti-Saddam) Iraqis to enter a sanctuary at the Iranian border.
Makes you feel good, as it had in other, different films, doesn't it?
The high-budget transformation of locations in the American Southwest and in Mexico into the Arabian desert is remarkable. The performers are good, including those who play Iraqis. So is the varied music score by Carter Burwell.