Three Kings (1999)

Review #1,030

Director:  David O. Russell
Cast:  George ClooneyMark WahlbergIce Cube, Spike Jonze
Plot:  In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, four soldiers set out to steal gold that was stolen from Kuwait, but they discover people who desperately need their help.

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Comedy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  114min
Rating:  M18 for graphic war violence, language and some sexuality.

“You know you're on the path to truth when you smell shit, isn't that what they say?”

A frenzied, bold, and sometimes superfluous exercise in war filmmaking that throws conventions out of the Humvee, Three Kings remains one of David O. Russell’s best works that still holds well in today’s climate of motion pictures.  Its aesthetics, a combination of MTV-style sensationalization and excessive editing and cinematographic techniques, would not have looked out of place in the 2010s, though it may be distractingly cheesy in the first quarter of the film. 

After that, the story and characters take center-stage, a testament to Russell’s directing and writing skills.  In the end, while Three Kings is intentionally stylized, the heart of the matter – of soldiers and civilians in war and the subject of human empathy – is portrayed in the most resonant of ways.

In my opinion, Russell has made better films since such as The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), but Three Kings is perhaps the best showcase of his bravura filmmaking with some spectacular action set-pieces.  The screenplay, full of wit, black humour and absurdity, lurches the characters into scenarios that they find themselves by choice. 

Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze (who directed films such as Where the Wild Things Are (2009 and Her (2013)), the late Roger Ebert often wondered why the movie was not titled ‘Four Kings’.  The four soldiers find a map that points to stolen gold hidden in a barrack.  They head off to steal the gold, only to find themselves needing to act at a humanitarian level when a civilian is brutally shot.

It is after the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.  Images from the war were broadcast to the world through news channels.  We saw media changing the face of war, and at the same time, being transformed in the process.  The immediacy of war has since been documented, sensationalized and exposed, yet it is also hidden from view, distorted and surrealized. 

Three Kings features a subplot of a fearless newswoman attempting to get stories in the midst of battle.  It is an important part of Russell's film, particularly towards its climax.  Exhilarating at times, Three Kings is a unique war movie that operates as an absurdist tale, but startling in its realistic portrayal of violence.  Its stylistic flourishes can be distracting, but it grips you from start to finish.

Verdict:  Startlingly violent yet emotionally resonant, this war movie combines action and drama in a distractingly stylized way that sort of works.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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