Warner Bros. // 1999 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // April 17th, 2000
Only their conscience stands between three men and millions of dollars in gold.
Three Kings is a rare Hollywood gem, a thoughtful and nuanced war movie where the director's vision and message is presented fairly, without resort to heavy-handed sermonizing or cheap emotional theatrics. Warner gives us a truly worthy Three Kings disc, combining an excellent film presentation with a premium package of extra content.
For many millions of people in the United States, the Persian Gulf War was the first real taste of armed conflict in their lifetime, having been too young for the height of the Vietnam War, or even the Korean War or World War II. The advent of the televised war, with CNN gaining particular notoriety, has changed the public perception of what it means to be at war. When virtually every casualty is front-page news, and every twitch of the military machine is covered in superficial yet mind-numbing detail, the public perception of conflict (and the military's own view of it) is bound to undergo a radical change from that of past wars.
Three Kings is a war film of the new era, and so while it borrows from its heritage, it goes further to create a unique entry in this particular genre. You may have thought from the way Three Kings was promoted that it was merely a modern remake of Kelly's Heroes (starring Clint Eastwood and many, many other good actors), which also tells the tale of American soldiers planning a gold heist during wartime. This basic similarity should not dissuade you from exploring Three Kings further, as there is much more than meets the eye.
On the one hand, Kelly's Heroes (coming soon to DVD), is a relatively straightforward story, telling the tale of a motley group of soldiers who must overcome friend, foe, and random chance alike to gain a fantastic treasure of Nazi gold. Three Kings, on the other hand, is more ambitious. While based around a similar premise, it also takes a look at the media-driven nature of modern combat, where even the soldiers do not have as much direct contact with the up close and personal brutality of war as their predecessors once did, and asks sobering questions about the resolution of the Gulf War, even as it uses flashes of humor, groovy music, and a veritable bag of cinematographic tricks to tell the tale.
What gives Three Kings its thought-provoking depth is simple: how should the Gulf War have ended? In reality, the American-led coalition (with President George Bush as its de facto leader) stopped short of removing the threat of Saddam Hussein, contenting itself with the liberation of Kuwait and the destruction of only a portion of the Iraqi military, while encouraging the opposition forces in Iraq to rebel against Saddam Hussein. Even worse was the inaction that ensued when the Iraqi armed forces ruthlessly suppressed the incipient rebellion in the north and south of Iraq, murdering rebels and civilians alike. Many in the United States military (and back home) were deeply unsettled at this turn of events, which recalled the saying that for evil to triumph, good men must do nothing.
Three Kings opens as the Gulf War cease-fire has taken hold, leaving the United States military forces with little to do except round up surrendering Iraqi troops, party, and wait for the trip back home. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is celebrating his new fatherhood with Army buddies, including the not-too-bright but devoted pal Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze). Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a Special Forces solider disenchanted by his current duty of escorting reporters, so he engages in some bump and tickle with cute blonde reporter Cathy Daitch (Judy Greer -- Jawbreaker, What Planet Are You From?) even as he is supposed to be working with grouchy veteran reporter Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn).
Life gets interesting when Troy and Conrad find a secret map while searching surrendering Iraqi soldiers and enlist the talents of Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) to unlock its secrets. The map may be the key to finding great hordes of valuables looted from Kuwait by the Iraqi army, and now this trio looks to steal some of it for their own benefit. When Adriana starts digging around for leads on a rumored stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion, Archie sees his future unfolding. Deftly distracting Adriana, Archie ditches her and tracks the rumor to its source, namely our enlisted trio. They quickly sign up when Archie spins his gold yarn and like a heavily armed field trip, our heroes set off in a humvee for the village of Karbala, the reported location of the gold-filled bunker.
The village is a chaotic sight. The Iraqi rebellion in the area has prompted the Iraqi army to take reprisals against the civilian populace, including torture of suspected rebels and shutting the village off from all food shipments. Our heroes drive into town and get right to business, searching bunkers for their prize. Finding the gold takes sharp eyes and sharper minds, but with the immense stash of gold in hand, our heroes are finally ready to leave town. A sudden atrocity by the Iraqi troops stuns Archie, who decides that he cannot let this pass. Retribution is swift and bloody, interrupted by the fearsome appearance of an Iraqi army tank! Fleeing from this armored monster, our heroes meet with disaster: Troy is captured by the Iraqi troops and Conrad, Chief Elgin, and Archie are rescued by rebel forces.
Meanwhile, the missing soldiers have been noticed by Colonel Horn (Mykelti Williamson -- Forest Gump, Con Air, Heat) who orders the miscreants found and arrested. Archie and Amir Abdullah (Cliff Curtis -- Deep Rising, Bringing Out the Dead, The Insider) reach a mutually profitable alliance, giving Archie and his cohorts arms and transport in return for a share of the gold and escort for the inhabitants of Karbala across the border to a refugee camp in Iran. Archie insists that they must also rescue Troy Barlow from his captors, to which Amir reluctantly agrees. It can't happen soon enough for Troy, who is at the torturing hands of an Iraqi officer scarred by the loss of his child and nearly his wife during the Gulf War.
Archie and Amir concoct a simple yet effective ruse to infiltrate the stronghold where Troy is being held. Guile can only take them so far, with quick thinking and sharp shooting taking them the rest of the way. Troy is liberated, though not without cost, leaving Archie & Co. with only the task of escorting the villagers across the border to safety. With luck, money, and Adriana Cruz's help, all's well that ends well for our heroes, who manage to enrich themselves in ways monetary and moral.
Acting is uniformly impressive. George Clooney (From Dusk Till Dawn, Out of Sight, and The Thin Red Line), is well-cast as Archie Gates, the cool, calm Special Forces soldier whose raging internal moral conflict drives the plot, and Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Corruptor) does a capable if somewhat bland turn as Troy Barlow. Ice Cube, whose talents I greatly appreciated in his debut role in Boyz N the Hood, uses humor and gritty appeal to fertilize his growth as a budding scene-stealer.
However, the surprise comes from some lesser-known quarters. I would never have guessed Saturday Night Live alumnus Nora Dunn could have pulled off her role as Adriana Cruz, an aging cable news reporter fighting younger, amoral colleagues and the military for her next big story, with such passionate success. Spike Jonze (recently lauded for his directorial debut Being John Malkovich) is entirely genuine as the ignorant yet good-natured and loyal Conrad Vig, and Jamie Kennedy (Romeo + Juliet, Scream, Bowfinger) amuses as the goofy driver whose amorous attention for Adriana Cruz is doomed to be unrequited.
The video transfer for Three Kings is superb. However, as explained many times in the extra content, the director made use of several different film stocks and processing techniques to achieve certain visual effects, much as Steven Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps anticipating the reaction of the average viewer, Warner wisely decided to place a warning at the start of the disc. So, taking into account the deliberate cinematographic choices made by the director, the video is sharp and clear, with well-saturated color (as allowed by the film stock), deep blacks, and zero digital enhancement artifacts. Some bits of dirt (sand perhaps?) occasionally intrude upon the screen. If this were filmed in a more conventional style, this would be pure reference material.
On the other hand, the audio is reference quality. I have seldom experienced as enveloping a soundfield that puts all six channels to such excellent use. Sound effects move from right to left, left to right, front to back, back to front, and around the room (just for starters, check out the gunshot at 31:32 that circles from center to right front to right rear to left rear). The front soundstage is wide and deep with exquisite imaging, the rear surrounds are used aggressively to support the action as well as providing top-notch ambient fill, and your subwoofer used very nicely to punch up the action. This is a sound mix that ought to win awards!
With all of the extra content squeezed on this disc, Three Kings is a special edition disc in fact if not in name. The featurette "Under the Bunker" is more than the usual brief promotional fluff piece, covering the whole production of film over a nearly 21 minute running time. The two feature-length commentary tracks, the first with Director David O. Russell and the second with producers Charles Roven and Edward L. McDonnell, are fairly standard representatives of their type. It's not particularly compelling listening, but if you are interested in discovering the innumerable details that go into the making of Three Kings, then you will get your fill.
The six and a half minutes of deleted scenes (often a somewhat underwhelming item) is here a treat due to the inclusion of commentary by Director David O. Russell, which explains in detail why the scenes were filmed, yet eventually cut. The Director's Video Journal is a 13-minute collection of footage filmed by the Director to document the entire process of making Three Kings, including writing, casting, budgeting, discussions with producers and studio executives, the film itself, and finally the glitzy Hollywood premier. I found this the most fascinating item, as it presents real life snapshots of behind-the-scenes maneuverings rarely seen by public eyes.
The 10-minute Tour of the Iraqi Village Set (with production designer Catherine Hardwicke and the 7 minute interview with director of photography are testaments to the immense level of planning, effort, and detail that goes into making a film believable, entertaining, and true to the director's creative vision. "An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process with Ice Cube" is a quick (two-minute) bit of sly humor, the gallery of still photos (taken by Spike Jonze), extensive production notes, the theatrical trailer and three Easter eggs in the extra content menus (yielding a TV spot and two passwords for use on the official web site) round out the regular extras. For those of you with DVD-ROM drives (not including me, sadly), the box boasts Persian Gulf War web links, an "enhanced assmap" (don't ask, just watch the movie!) with links to scenes in the film, character biographies, and the original theatrical web site itself.
May I take this moment to praise Warner for simply time-coding all of the extra content? Not only does it make a reviewer's life a hair simpler, but as a viewer I like to know how long an item is without having to sit through it first. Bravo Warner!
I have some quibbles with the story. The film does an excellent job in making the soldiers on all sides of the conflict (American, Iraqi, rebel) human beings, but I think it comes far too close to creating a false moral equivalency between the American and Iraqi sides. (You do bad things, we do bad things, so we're the same.) Another flaw is the clichéd Hollywood happy ending. For a movie that prides itself on morally ambiguous and complex situations, an ending where the protagonists live happily ever after seems out of kilter to the rest of Three Kings.
Warner's only error is the continued use of their snapper case. Handle them with care, all you collectors out there!
There are some scenes that are not for the squeamish, but otherwise, a solid, widely appealing film that should both entertain and provoke some thoughtful post-viewing discussion. If you are looking for a film with action, drama and touches of humor and social commentary, a rental or a purchase ($25 retail) of Three Kings is highly recommended.
All parties are acquitted beyond all doubt. Now this is the DVD treatment that all films should get!
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director Commentary Track
* Producers Commentary Track
* Production Notes
* Tour of Iraqi Village Set
* Director's Video Journal
* Deleted Scenes
* Interview with Director of Photography
* Inside the Acting Process with Ice Cube
* Photograph Gallery
* Hidden Bunkers
* Theatrical Trailer
* DVD-ROM Content
* Official Site