A filmmaker deploys point of view
Review: 'Three Kings' -- war games
October 4, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- The paradox of war is that you have to kill people in order to stop people from killing each other. And that twisted logic has been the inspiration for some of the finest satire of the past century.
It's the central storytelling device of Joseph Heller's brilliant novel, "Catch-22," in which the inherent contradictions of modern warfare corrupt the speech patterns and thought processes of the men doing the fighting.
In "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about the senseless firebombing of Dresden, Germany, during which Allied bombers devastated a gorgeous, art-filled city, pretty much just because they could. And, of course, Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970) attacked the Vietnam War through the back door, by infusing the Korean War with an especially profane kind of anti-authoritarian irreverence.
David O. Russell's audacious new film "Three Kings" -- starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as Persian Gulf War soldiers -- may not stand in a class with those masterpieces. But Russell has made a sharp, bitingly funny action movie that has more on its mind than simple firefights.
"Three Kings" is a thought-provoking slice of pop surrealism that deals with (among other things) America's casual insistence on altering the countries we liberate by dropping our disposable culture smack into the middle of the bombed-out ruins.
Remember how Sam Bottoms water-skied behind the patrol boat in "Apocalypse Now" (1979), soaking the bewildered locals while Mick Jagger announced his inability to achieve "satisfaction?" That type of cultural juxtaposition is the calling card of "Three Kings." It's not every war movie that shows a helicopter being brought down by a Nerf football filled with plastic explosives, or a bored enemy rifleman wrestling with the cellophane on a Slim Jim.
Russell is as concerned with the effects of all-encompassing consumerism as he is with combat. To him, Operation Desert Storm was just another byproduct of America's entrepreneurial spirit.
An astute director willfully flaunting his personal opinions is what makes "Three Kings" such a welcome relief from the scores of mindless studio films that hit our screens every year.
Some people are bound to get huffy over Russell's open distaste for the Bush administration. But Russell is a filmmaker with something on his mind; he didn't determine what everyone else was thinking, then concoct a story that would stroke the all-important audience ego. And he's smart enough to throw in a little rah-rah at the end, thus sneaking the satirical meat of the film into the theater with a "God Bless America" tap dance. His vision, although sometimes unfocused, is the real successor to "The National Lampoon." He lampoons a nation.
The story opens in March 1991, shortly after "peace" has been declared in Iraq. Clooney plays Archie Gates, a Special Forces Major who hears about a map that reservist Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) found stuck in an enemy prisoner's … nether regions. Gates determines that the map leads to millions of dollars worth of gold bullion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's men have stolen from local sheiks.
The major is retiring from the service in two weeks, and this kind of haul would be a nice parting gift. So he gathers together a group of men to travel well beyond the jurisdiction of American forces, try to ignore the Iraqi soldiers who are currently shooting local rebels and take the loot.
Clooney and Wahlberg's characters get the most screen time, but their partners in the theft are just as well-written. Cube, who grimaces more than he acts, plays Chief Elgin, a homeboy with a soft heart and a powerful belief in the Muslim faith.
And video director Spike Jonze is impressive as Conrad Vig, a redneck near-simpleton with an almost puppy-like devotion to Wahlberg's Barlow. Vig is a variation on the character that Woody Harrelson often plays, all boyish charm and a little empty between the ears. Jonze gets many of the best lines. It has to be explained to Vig that he and his pals aren't planning to steal the kind of bouillon that you use to make soup.
Nearly every scene contains a surrealistic element, something that just about makes sense but leaves you grasping for a few seconds after it happens. The bizarre images just keep coming. A cow explodes into a million pieces after a soldier shoots it; the men take target practice at more Nerf footballs, perhaps the strangest instance of product placement in movie history; a tanker truck turns over and a river of milk washes the men off their feet during a shootout; Jonze drives a luxury car through the middle of the desert while "Baby Please Don't Go" blasts from the CD player; Clooney and the gang burst in on soldiers who try to buy their way out of the jam with stolen food processors.
When combined with the realistic-looking blood and sickening "thwap" of bullets hitting supposed flesh, the visual non sequiturs create an almost dreamlike state.
It's like that from the beginning. In the first shot of the film, Wahlberg stares at a distant figure across a glistening wide-angle panorama of the desert floor. He shouts "Are we shootin' people?" to an unseen comrade. When the answer comes back to go ahead and shoot if the figure is armed, Wahlberg raises his rifle to his shoulder, shoots drops the man. It's a crazy, businesslike moment, more like a boring arcade game than a real war.
Unfortunately, not all the craziness works. The first hour moves at a thrilling clip, and it's fun negotiating the oddly distorted atmosphere. Russell loses his bearings, though, during the aftermath of the heist.
There's a frightening, disorienting nerve-gas attack shortly after the robbery, then the story focuses on the soldiers' recent change of heart. Gates and the men have opted to help a group of brutalized refugees get over the border into Iran. The sudden do-gooder impulse brings the movie thudding to Earth. But, even then, there are sequences that stay with you.
Foremost is one in which Wahlberg's character, captured by the Iraqis, is locked in a room full of stolen goods as his captors prepare to interrogate him. Rightfully panic-stricken, he discovers a stash of old cell phones and madly dials the local operator. The trouble is, he doesn't know what number to call. How do you contact American troops in the middle of the desert? So he does the next best thing and calls his wife in California.
The sight of Wahlberg trying to carry on a benign domestic conversation while people are down the hallway preparing to torture him is one of the more jolting, darkly hilarious film sequences in years. There's a frantic emotionalism to it that's almost been snuffed out of American movies, and Russell deserves high praise for letting the ironic sparks fly at such an exhilarating rate.
The film looks fantastic, like 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" on magic mushrooms. Russell gets carried away with trick shots at times, but cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel saturates the color whenever the story moves into the hot desert sun. Light glares into the lens and all the hues seem blanketed with a grayish tint.
Some shots also have the same hyperclarity as the battle scenes in "Private Ryan." When Jonze is trying to outrun an incoming attack helicopter, the grains of sand that kick up from the machine-gun blasts seem to hang in the air for an instant before they fall to the ground.
"Three Kings" is a challenging, often violent film, but it's got enough style and off-the-wall scenes in it to keep pretty much everybody occupied. This is what the best commercial films of the 1970s brought to the table, and directors like Russell and Steven Soderbergh (who directed Clooney last year in "Out of Sight") are doing what they can to revive that sensibility.
Seeing "Three Kings" might be read as your vote for such studio risk-taking. It's one of the best films of 1999.
Russell goes out of his way in "Three Kings" to enter a body and show you the unglamorous way that a gunshot kills a person. But then he undermines the attempt by staging some of the killings in a hot-dog style that might get audiences cheering. People are shot at point-blank range, blood spews, heads explode, a cow explodes. There's brief nudity and bad language. Wahlberg's torture doesn't look like much fun, either. Regardless of how you feel about it, the film is a unique trip. Rated R. 125 minutes.
"Three Kings" is produced in part and distributed by Warner Bros., a Time Warner sister company to CNN.com.
'Three Kings' chastises Bush administration
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