David O. Russell's very individualistic first studio pic discharges black humor, startling action, genre subversion, anarchic attitude and barbed political commentary on its way to making very cogent points about the cynically expedient nature of war and America's role as the world's policeman. Bold approach and surprising narrative could work both for and against it.

Just the second Hollywood feature, after “Courage Under Fire,” to take on the 1991 Gulf War, “Three Kings” does so in an impudently comic, stylistically aggressive and, finally, very thoughtful manner. Using a “Kelly’s Heroes”-like heist of enemy loot as a point of departure, David O. Russell’s very individualistic first studio picture discharges black humor, startling action, genre subversion, anarchic attitude and barbed political commentary on its way to making very cogent points about the cynically expedient nature of war and, specifically, America’s role as the world’s policeman. The film’s bold approach and surprising narrative could work both for and against it; on the one hand, it is hard to imagine any audience finding it dull or uninteresting, but on the other, its contrariness in virtually all matters could very well exclude the mainstream action crowd and limit its appeal to relatively sophisticated, news-savvy viewers.

Undertaking one of the only American takes on ’90s armed conflict (any number of Euro productions have examined the Yugoslavian mess), Russell evidently felt compelled, or liberated, to fashion a new-look war film appropriate to an era in which the public’s images of warfare are defined by inelegant CNN pictures of nocturnal explosions and the resultant destruction. Certainly nothing else explains the deliberately grainy, bleached-out, almost digital look of this widescreen adventure, in which any sense of heroism is canceled, military grandeur is neutered and desert beauty is not allowed.

Right off the bat, another fresh element is introduced, that of a victory being celebrated by volunteer soldiers who never really tasted combat. In a cacophonous sequence set in Iraqi territory in March 1991, a typically boisterous bunch of American soldiers horses around and illicitly boozes in the wake of kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and a cease-fire being declared.

Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), a seen-it-all career officer due to retire in two weeks, ditches his assignment to assist arrogant TV journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) when he discovers that three G.I.s –Army Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) — have in their hands a map that seems to identify the location of an enormous stash of gold bullion snatched from Kuwait by Saddam’s army. A man for whom “necessity” is the driving force behind human activity, Gates has no trouble overcoming the younger men’s moral scruples about theft merely by mentioning the identity of the man who stole it first, and how it can enhance their post-war lives.

A master of having his way within the military, Gates commandeers a Humvee and leads his new cohorts on a brief excursion to a nearby desert village to take possession of the bullion. But the four men encounter a confusing situation at their destination. Welcomed with open arms by the Iraqi civilians, who have been encouraged by President Bush to believe that their efforts to overthrow Saddam will receive U.S. support, the soldiers treat them brusquely in their single-minded quest to grab the gold bricks. In the event, the Americans need the locals’ help in loading the bullion, and when Iraqi soldiers intervene, they ignore the Yanks and concentrate on the native “rebels” opposed to the dictator.

When the Iraqi soldiers, in a tense confrontation, kill a mother before her young daughter’s eyes and appear poised to create considerably more mayhem once the Yanks leave, Gates and devout Christian Elgin have crises of conscience and quickly respond to the threat in a morally appropriate way. Shootout triggers the flight of the Americans and dozens of Iraqis. Deliberately confusing sequence accentuates one of the pic’s overriding themes, of the temporary, ambiguous and sometimes arbitrary nature of borders, alliances and the rules of warfare.

Gates’ sudden conversion to humanitarian over self-preservation reps one of the picture’s few weak points; scriptwise, there is no emotional or intellectual preparation for this, and Clooney provides no clues in his performance of what might have led to this significant change of heart. But onward he goes, accompanying the villagers to an underground rebel sanctuary while coping with the triple challenge of conducting the natives to safety, holding onto the gold and avoiding a court-martial for going AWOL.

For a good stretch, much of Russell’s humor veers toward the glib and cynical, and no opportunity is missed to make tiresome fun of the dumb Southern hick private played by Jonze (director of the forthcoming “Being John Malkovich,” making a less than overwhelming bigscreen acting debut). And while the bleached-out visual style implemented by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“The Usual Suspects”) is undeniably striking, its affected grubbiness begins wearing thin well before the adventure comes to its properly ironic and pragmatic end.

But the way the film develops and fills out its agenda by the final reels is genuinely impressive. Russell generally makes his points quickly and unpretentiously, with stiletto-like jabs, and some of them, relating to infantry ennui and Bush’s empty promises, are familiar. More subtly, he refers to how the CIA trained Iraqis during their war with Iran, only to see that expertise turned against the U.S. a few years later, and even peppers the English of such Iraqis with distinctly ’70s and ’80s phrases.

Underlying it all, however, are sentiments that may go over the heads of general audiences, those concerning the amorality and lack of consistent principles in American foreign policy. No Hollywood film in memory has addressed such an issue, but the sobering final impression here is that, unless the world’s most powerful country defines what it stands for, it will stand for nothing other than the threat of brute force and economic coercion.

Clooney, Cube and, particularly, Wahlberg, deliver rugged and well-considered turns, and Dunn has some strong moments as the pushy journo. Carter Burwell’s score mixes seamlessly with a vast selection of tunes for an appropriately eclectic soundtrack.

Three Kings

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures/Village-A.M Film Partnership of a Coast Ridge Films/Atlas Entertainment production. Produced by Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell. Executive producers, Gregory Goodman, Kelley Smith-Wait, Bruce Berman. Co-producers, Douglas Segal, Kim Roth, John Ridley. Directed, written by David O. Russell, story by John Ridley.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Newton Thomas Sigel; editor, Robert K. Lambert; music, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Ralph Sall; production designer, Catherine Hardwicke; supervising art director, Derek R. Hill; art director, Jann Engel; set decorator, Gene Serdena; costume designer, Kym Barrett; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Edward Tise; supervising sound editors, Bruce Fortune, John Leveque; associate producer, Alan G. Glazer; assistant director, Julian Wall; second unit director-stunt coordinator, Dan Bradley; second unit camera, Phil Pfeiffer; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Sept. 20, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 min.

With

Archie Gates - George Clooney Troy Barlow - Mark Wahlberg Chief Elgin - Ice Cube Conrad Vig - Spike Jonze Adriana Cruz - Nora Dunn Walter Wogaman - Jamie Kennedy Colonel Horn - Mykelti Williamson Amir Abdulah - Cliff Curtis Captain Said - Said Taghmaoui Cathy Daitch - Judy Greer Debbie Barlow - Liz Stauber Captain Van Meter - Holt McCallany

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