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Three Kings

Three Kings(1999)

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teaser Three Kings (1999)

Arab images in Hollywood film have come a long way since Rudolph Valentino and The Sheik (1921), even if it took a war to do it. David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999) not only kicks sand in the faces of Arabic-speaking movie stereotypes, it's one of the best American war movies, period. The reason it's more than just the Kelly's Heroes (1970) and M*A*S*H (1970) of the first Gulf War is that it has equal measures of disrespect for war and the war movie alike. When you hear it's about a Humvee of GIs trying to steal some of the gold Saddam has stolen from the Kuwaitis and stashed in a few bunkers, you go in expecting another wise guy service comedy, plus larceny. By the end, you're amazed by the ways it yanks the assumptions out from under the genre - including the assumption that the other side is faceless cannon fodder.

While George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze star as the scamsters in uniform whose hearts prove bigger than their greed - think of them as Ocean's Four -- the real hero here is Russell. His barbed script and direction make you realize how unexamined, how unquestioning, how uncontextualized most war movies are. Usually, war movies are so busy celebrating the valor of the combatants that they never get around to the larger moral and political issues attached to this or that war. Three Kings, combining an unswerving sense of the absurd and a deep pool of moral outrage, tees off on all the lethal folly in its range finder. It loses no time slamming on the table the idea that the war wasn't motivated by noble principle, but by a vision no larger than that of perceived economic expediency, and that it proceeded with the same confusion and lack of overview as in Vietnam.

No less remarkably, it contains sympathetic Iraqis, and allows them to be as human, and sometimes more, than the GIs and their scheme to literally give themselves a golden parachute out of the war, while Iraqis rebelling against Saddam are left hung out to dry by the US in-out policy that leaves the rebels to be slaughtered by the still-in-power Saddam and his Republican Guard. The film lets both sides be heard. New Zealand-born Cliff Curtis is the film's conscience as the rebel leader whose wife is killed and whose bravery and rectitude gnaw at the cynicism of Clooney's cynical Ranger major with a pitch-perfect name: Archie Gates. Almost as three-dimensional is Said Taghmaoui's Republican Guard captain whose outfit captures Wahlberg. While never stepping outside the line that the Republican Guard fighters only kill because they're more afraid of Saddam than of whomever they may be facing in combat, Taghmaoui (a French actor born of Moroccan immigrant parents) tortures Wahlberg with methods the US military taught the Iraqis, bitterly relates how his infant daughter was killed by US bombs and gives his prisoner a lesson in global geopolitics.

The film almost immediately establishes the base line of the steep learning curve the GIs must negotiate when one of them takes to task another for referring to the Iraqis as "dune coons" and "sand niggers," adding, deadpan, that "towel head" and "camel jockey" are perfectly acceptable substitutes. Wahlberg's Iraqi captor's first question is, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson. Why does your sick ******* country make the black man hate himself?" The real war here is against simplistic viewpoints, starting with Clooney's smart but jaded major seeing their heist as a quick run out into the desert to Saddam's treasure-laden bunkers with a return to their tents by lunchtime - and a lot richer. Of course, it doesn't turn out that way. When they get to the parched village with its treasure bunker disguised as a well, stuffed with gold ingots and other loot ranging from computers to Cuisinarts, they realize that a Republican Guard detachment there is indifferent to their presence, waiting for them to leave so they can gun down the rebels. The latter assume the GIs have been sent to help them. It's tense fun watching Clooney struggle to suppress the remains of his tattered sense of right and wrong, try and stick to the plan, drive out with the gold, and leave the abandoned rebels to die.

But the gold is so heavy he needs the rebels to help them transport it in a cache of stolen Louis Vuitton luggage. Next thing they know, they're exchanging gunfire with the Republican Guard, and they're committed, cursing the complications that have arisen in what they thought would be something as simple as knocking over an ATM. Instead, they're huddled in a rebel sanctuary, plotting a counterattack with a fleet of stolen limos. There's also the matter of rescuing Wahlberg's reservist, who wants only to get back to his wife and kids (the rebel leader's second in command wants only to open a hair styling salon, not caring if he styles Shiites or Sunnis). The often surreal absurdity peaks when Wahlberg's resourceful NCO, unable to walkie-talkie his base while confined in another bunker (with a mural of a beaming Saddam in cap and gown!), plucks a cell phone from a pile of looted ones and phones his wife in Detroit, who in turn phones his position in to headquarters.

Meanwhile, Clooney and the others, aided immensely by a warm characterization from Ice Cube, keep the desert improvisations coming, with Clooney's good-guy roguishness keeping the film tilted toward comic unpredictability, and the Iraqi characters being allowed the stature of moral anchors, never mere tokens. As if to guard against prettification, Russell's camera drains color from the desert settings, emphasizing their gritty harshness. It ends on a satisfyingly pragmatic note with an against-the-odds victory for conscience and it escapes the need for ersatz moral epiphanies. If these GIs behave like good guys, prodded by Iraqis in whose plight they are complicit, it's not because that's their first choice. The resourceful, bracingly savvy Three Kings irreverently reinvents the war movie and ambitiously saves its best shots for military mythmaking and the myopic lunges that sometimes pass for US foreign policy.

Producer: Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, Charles Roven
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell (screenplay); John Ridley (story)
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Art Direction: Jann Engel, Derek R. Hill
Music: Carter Burwell
Film Editing: Robert K. Lambert
Cast: George Clooney (Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Chief Elgin), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Cliff Curtis (Amir Abdulah), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Jamie Kennedy (Walter Wogaman), Said Taghmaoui (Captain Said), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Holt McCallany (Captain Van Meter).
BW-114m.

by Jay Carr

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