Film Review: Three Kings (1999)

in Movies & TV Shows3 months ago


History of Hollywood is full of films their authors would wish they were never made, despite initially getting good reviews and enjoying success at box office. This often happens due to certain circumstances beyond authors’ control like, for example, certain historical events that put their works in completely different context. A good example could be provided by Three Kings, 1999 action comedy written and directed by David O. Russell.

The plot is set shortly after First Gulf War, a short but extremely violent 1991 conflict during which USA and its allies, using air supremacy and technological superiority, made short work of Iraqi military forcing Saddam Hussein to leave occupied Kuwait. Most US servicemen who took part in campaign actually didn’t see any action and that includes US Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his friend Private First Class Conrad Vig (played by Spike Jonze) and the first Iraqis they see are numerous prisoners they are supposed to handle. Among one of them they find strange map they would show to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (played by Ice Cube) who suggests it may point to location where the Iraqis stashed Kuwaiti gold plundered during occupation. This story intrigues Special Forces Major Archie Gates (played by George Clooney) who suggests that four of them might go and try to pick the gold for themselves. The location is deep within Iraq, still under Saddam’s control, but four men use lack of clarity armistice terms and confusion within Iraqi ranks. Things are made easier due to Iraqi Shia population launching uprising against Saddam, so Iraqi military not only has better things to do than stop four adventurers, but even some of their officers are offering help. Gates, however, knows that his government won’t do anything to help Iraqi people so he makes a fateful decision during the mission.

Most critics after the premiere saw Three Kings as nothing more than modern day remake of Kelly’s Heroes, 1970 irreverent war comedy starring Clint Eastwood which used similar plot premise set in France during WW2. Russell, probably aware that cinephiles wouldn’t react too kindly towards tampering with genre classics, tried his best to make his different as different as possible. This included not only modern setting, but completely different style which included use of handheld camera and MTV-style editing, as well as some innovative ways of depicting combat. Probably the most innovative and memorable were scenes trying to give accurate and graphic depiction of what happens to human body when hit by a bullet. This, in turn, made stakes for protagonists look much higher than in average action film and also gave arguments for those who would like to see The Three Kings as anti-war piece. Russell also used editing for some ironic commentary about state of affairs in the world, like in the scene where Iraqis use TV sets plundered from Kuwait to watch infamous videotape of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles. The acting in the film, however, leaves something to be desired. Clooney, Wahlberg and Ice Cube give mostly routine performances, unlike Spike Jonze, music video director for whom the role of an uneducated Southern soldier was the quite impressive acting debut; Jonze would in the same year shine even brighter as director in his feature debut Being John Malkovich.

What made this film even more interesting was Russell’s attempt to give more nuanced approach towards what many Americans at the time saw as “splendid little war”. He tried to find middle ground between American chauvinism and jingoism on one and “political correctness” on the other side. Iraqi characters are portrayed quite differently than Arab or Muslim characters in most of Hollywood films of 1980s and 1990s – far from being ignorant barbarous fanatics, they are intelligent, resourceful and quite familiar with American popular culture and the way of life. Russell even allows film’s villain, Iraqi officer played by Saïd Taghmahoui, to question American motives for their military adventures in Middle East in a very graphic but convincing fashion. Russell, however, ultimately takes the view that was very popular among many American leftists and liberals in 1990s. They criticised George H. W. Bush not for starting First Gulf War but for not finishing it or, in other words, not using omnipotent US military to take out Saddam Hussein and bring down benefits of modern democracy to oppressed masses of Iraq. Four years Bush’s son did exactly that in Second Gulf War. Russell, like most American public, was war’s enthusiastic supporter and even bragged that it was his film in 1999 that led George W. Bush to adopt that policy. Decades later, when US invasion and occupation of Iraq is often seen as catalyst for most of the bloodshed in 21st Century and geopolitical turmoil that is bringing world closer to nuclear annihilation, it is difficult not to view Three Kings as incredibly naive film that might leave some viewers embittered despite its technical and artistic achievements.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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