(US 1999) Rated R
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn
Directed by David O. Russell
Writing credits: John Ridley, David O. Russell
Warner Bros. * 115 minutes
Part revisionist history, part hip-and-edgy comedic drama, THREE KINGS is Hollywood's first major attempt at chronicling the Persian Gulf War. Rapturous when it succeeds and merely fascinating when it fails, the film's mixed bag of inspirations and ideas ultimately results in one of the oddest and most provocative films in recent memory.
David O. Russell has built a buzz-happy career with his eccentric, low-budget comedies Spanking The Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. While THREE KINGS may seem to be a depature both in budget (over $50M) and in subject (the perils of war), it in fact has much in common with Russell's previous efforts: edgy subject matter, pop culture references, rough and tumble dialogue, and generous portions of wit and emotional resonance. The edgy subject, in this case, is the startling notion (to some) that the United States abandoned Kuwaiti and Iraqi rebels after the Gulf War, who were then subsequently crushed and massacred by Saddam Hussein's forces. Pop culture comes in the form of capitalist American merchandise stashed in Saddam's bunkers and barracks, including Louis Vuitton luggage, Cuisinarts, and Levi jeans. Russell's cool, rapier-like dialogue is traded between four U.S. soldiers, played to varying degrees of success by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze. Finally, the wit and the emotion trade off almost schizophrenically, with high camp (Nerfballs outfitted as bombs) and serious, Oscar-signaling moments of brutalized Kuwaitis.
The whole affair is strangely distant; the film is engrossing and entertaining, but rarely does it cross over into the rarefired air of being truly moving. This may hurt its Oscar chances, but not its box office numbers. The film is an enjoyable two hours, and any literate audience member will be satisfied with the unexpected twists and turns in the third act.
George Clooney, making his first mature bid for film stardom after leaving television, is astonishingly good as the leader of this band of soldiers on the hunt for Kuwaiti buillion in the desert. Clooney has always been inhibited by his own narcissism; his performance here is one of the most giving and open of his career. He works wonderfully with Mark Wahlberg, who can now credibly be called one of his generation's best actors. On the heels of Boogie Nights, this film should move him into the discussion for Supporting Actor nominations. The other two soldiers of the foursome are less successful. Ice Cube, a performer who has never exhibited great range, manages to only hit one note in his religiously-inflected performance. Video director Spike Jonze (whose own feature film debut, Being John Malkovitch, will appear later this season) is lost in a one-dimensional character and an unfortunate Southern accent. A special surprise is Nora Dunn, the underrated comedienne who brings a special boost of energy to her turn as a CNN-inspired reporter on the trail of the missing gold.
THREE KINGS may be rejected by some who prefer a less mercurial plot. (Is it a heist thriller? A war action film? A postmodern comedy?) But for the adventurous in spirit who like cerebral touches with their graphic violence, this film is a boon. Just academic enough to entertain, THREE KINGS is the surprise of the fall -- heroic, intelligent action and unexpected glory.
- Gabriel Shanks
(This review originally appeared at Movie Bodega in 1999)
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