Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review: "Three Kings" Prophetic, Timeless, and Timely

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 102 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

Three Kings (1999)
Running time: 114 minutes (1 hour, 54 minutes)
MPAA – R for graphic war violence, language and some sexuality
DIRECTOR: David O. Russell
WRITERS: David O. Russell, story by John Ridley
PRODUCERS: Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, and Charles Roven
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Newton Thomas Sigel
EDITOR: Robert K. Lambert
COMPOSER: Carter Burwell


Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Cliff Curtis, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Mykelti Washington, Judy Greer, and Liz Stauber

David O. Russell’s (Flirting with Disaster) film Three Kings is set in the aftermath of the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm). Four soldiers set out to recover Iraqi gold that Saddam Hussein stole from Kuwait. Somewhere along the way, they discover that the people, the ordinary citizens caught between the United Nations (i.e. American) juggernaut and Saddam’s brutality, need the soldiers more than the soldiers need the gold.

This is obviously an anti-war picture, but that term is rather broad, as it is for many films that are war movies or take a hard look at war and strife. Shot in a palette of shifting and unusual colors, the film is as surrealistic as the experience of sudden and massive violence can be. In the end, it’s “anti-war” in the sense that it shows how the individual must confront his part in large scale violence, in which he exists as a servant and when the warlords are faceless bureaucrats and manic officers far away from the ground level violence. It’s also about how the little people, the one’s who have no say in how things are run, take the sucker punches. If this movie does one thing well, it is how it portrays the plight of the powerless.

The elements of the film: setting, story, and characters have a hard, visceral feel. The brutal edge bites deep into the soul and makes the viewer feel for the players. On the other hand, the film feels out of control and overly earnest, as if it’s screaming its message at you. That’s not off-putting, but the film often feels hollow because the chain of events are so predictable. From the first time the soldiers (ably played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) encounter some Iraqi civilians getting beat up and shot, you know what’s coming. Clooney’s Maj. Archie Gates can’t leave them behind, and while Wahlberg’s Sfc. Troy Barlow first resists getting involved, he predictably relents. From that point, the Three Kings (Ice Cube’s SSgt. Chief Elgin is the third) are on an earnest holy mission; even Cube’s Elgin is made to play a pious man calling on a high authority to guide them.

Though it is well meaning and flashy, I do give Russell and story writer John Ridley credit for bluntly confronting the hypocrisy of the U.N.’s (once again, U.S.’s) public stance on why they were in Iraq the first time. Three Kings says a lot of things that needed to be said back then and are as relevant today as they were then. It’s a gut check to for a lethargic audience fat on the film treats that will inevitably lead them to tire of SFX tricks. To hear not one, but several characters, both military and civilian, in a film, confront war with such sarcasm, disdain, and sorrow is refreshing.

7 of 10

2000 Black Reel Awards: 1 nomination: “Theatrical - Best Supporting Actor” (Ice Cube)


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