By 1999, movies involving the Persian Gulf war were usually ramrod straight dramas that treated the still-fresh struggle against Saddam Hussein with a grave respect despite continuing debate about what the whole bloody thing was actually about. 1996’s Courage Under Fire was about debate whether someone deserved a posthumous Medal Of Honor while 1992’s The Finest Hour saw a friendship changed and then reinforced by the onset of Desert Storm.
That changed with David O’ Russell’s Three Kings, a movie that audaciously used the back drop of burning oil fields and dusty troops to bring us a action/heist/black comedy that casts a satirical eye over the whole deal while never pausing the fast and furious antics of four American soldiers as they try to make sense (and some money) from the divisive conflict.
It’s the end of the Gulf War and troops are either bored thanks to a lack of actual action, or are utterly burned out like Archie Gates, an almost retired Major who takes time out from being disillusioned about the way the war had been handled to screw journalists in trade for news scoops. Meanwhile, while processing the various members of Saddam’s forces that have surrendered, Sergeant Troy Barnes and his buddy, the rather slow Private Conrad Vig, finds a suspicious map rolled up and tucked tightly in the posterior of an Iraqi officer.
After taking said “Iraqi ass map” to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate it, the trio are intercepted by Archie who has heard various rumours floating around and confirms that the maps detail bunkers that contain stacks of gold bullion that Saddam’s forces had stolen from Kuwait and the group concoct a plan to go steal it and be set for life in their civilian lives.
After locating the bunkers and receiving virtually no resistance from the Iraqi Republican Guard due to the cease fire, the quartet manage to get to the gold and load it into bags ready to go and be stashed elsewhere, but their attention is caught by the fact that while the guard are ignoring them, they’re still preventing the locals from procuring food or water due to them being anti-Saddam dissidents. On top of that, they stumble on the interrogation/torture of Shi’ite rebel Amir Abdullah which is the exact moment things finally start to get out of hand. Much to Troy’s worry, Archie and Elgin decide to free the prisoners which sets off a chain reaction that sees shots fired, reinforcements called and CS gas sprayed everywhere and after the dust has cleared, Archie, Elgin and Conrad find themselves in hiding with the Amir and the prisoners they’ve freed while Troy is captured by the Republican Guard. Back at bace, the noose starts to slowly tighten as Archie’s superiors get wind that something’s up while tough television reporter Adriana Cruz starts putting the pieces together after being sent on a while goose chase by Gates. Desperately making deals with gold that technically isn’t even his, Archie and his group have to find a way to save the gold, Troy and their own lives as threats close in from all sides.
The most impressive thing about Three Kings is how O’Russell manages to deliver sly digs and social commentary about the American military’s choice to essentially pull out and leave the Iraqi people high and dry while never letting up on the glib humor or propulsive action. “I don’t even know what we did here!” complains George Clooney’s Archie Gates to his superiors while rebel Amir reveals that his numerous cafes he owned before the war had in fact been bombed by Coalition forces. Add to this the chilling torture of Mark Wahlberg’s Troy after his interrogator demands to know why America made Michael Jackson change his face and you have a movie that has more to say than your average military movie that doesn’t so much claim that “war is hell” but instead suggests that war is pointless – especially when the men and women involved don’t really know what they’re supposed to be fighting for…
As important as O’Russell’s snappy cynicism is, it’s the fact that Three Kings’ holds together so well as an action comedy that’s as dark as the oil spills that have choked the local wildlife – it means he can slip his satirical urges into the film in plain sight. Spike Jonze’s Conrad is an irresponsible, barely literate redneck who follows Troy about like a puppy and who has no idea about what’s going on in the big picture, while we first meet Troy shooting a surrendered Iraq soldier as he’s too busy trying to find out what the current rules of engagement are. These, alongside the frustrated Archie and Ice Cube’s direct Elgin, are our heroes – dysfunctional men taking advantage of a dysfunctional war and the director’s style mirrors this with changing film stock, over exposed film and random cutaways used to explain certain points to the audience. Why simply explain what damage can be done as a bullet passes through a human body when you can cut to a view inside a torso as a projectile spreads sepsis creating bile throughout the wound?
Matching the genuinely moving drama and chaotic shooting style is the glib humor (a pre-battle Conrad taking Elgin’s advice and listen easy listening music before a gun fight allows a magnificent use of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now”) and muscular action that usually comes with a wry twist. An RPG is fired at an approaching oil tanker only for it to be filled with notoriously non-flamnable milk that’s supposed to be meant for the dissidents and elsewhere a helicopter is brought down with a mound of C4 strapped to a football.
The all-star cast is fantastic with the likes of Clooney, Wahlberg, Cube and Jonze being joined by the likes of Nora Dunn, Cliff Curtis, Jaime Kennedy, Mykelti Williamson, Judy Greer and Saïd Taghmaoul and despite the famous, behind the scenes drama (Clooney and O’Russell had a bit of a rumble), Three Kings emerges as probably the best war movie of the 90’s.