Warner Bros. // 1999 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 18th, 2010
In a war without heroes, they are kings.
"Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They don't. Now they're getting slaughtered."
The year is 1991, and the Persian Gulf War has just ended. In Iraq, three soldiers named Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights), Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, The Game) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube, XxX: State of the Union) have just discovered an important map. After some close examination, it's determined that the map reveals the hidden location of millions of dollars in gold bullion. Rather than revealing this information to their senior officers, the soldiers decide to make an attempt at stealing the gold for themselves. When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney, From Dusk Till Dawn) learns of their plan, he volunteers to keep quiet if they'll cut him in.
Thrilled by the opportunity to become incredibly wealthy, the four men frantically plan a heist and sneak out to the hidden bunkers that supposedly contain the gold. The good news is that the gold is actually there. The bad news is that this situation is about to get a whole lot more dangerous, complicated and confusing than they ever anticipated, forcing the men to make challenging moral decisions with many lives at stake.
As the centuries have passed, warfare has evolved into something alarmingly complicated. Though all wars have their complexities, the average person can understand what we were doing and why we fighting in The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, World War II and so on. Even Vietnam, for all of the hellish confusion, misery and loss of life on the battlefield, was a war that was relatively easy to examine and understand (whether one feels it should have been fought in the first place is another matter). However, the more recent conflicts America has been involved in have been primarily marked by confusion, miscommunication and frustration. When Major Archie Gates wearily asks, "What the f -- -- did we do here?" it's not a statement of regret. It's simply a question: what was the point of all this, exactly?
David O. Russell's Three Kings is intentionally a tonally fractured film and a precisely focused lightning bolt of cinematic anarchy. It's funny and terrifying, tragic and trivial, intense and whimsical. By whipping out these contradictions at considerable speed while slowly ratcheting up the tension and emotional weight of the story developing underneath the action, Russell immerses us in the exasperating world of these soldiers. Even more impressively, he does this without ever overwhelming us to the point where we are too blown out by the bombast to appreciate the frenzied elegance of his technique. In other words, Three Kings is a hilarious, exciting and sobering film that stands as the definitive cinematic statement on modern warfare.
The film essentially begins as a heist movie, with a handful of semi-lovable losers plotting to strike it rich. Characters in most heist movies tend to be a little rough around the edges, but Russell allows his unsuspecting heroes to demonstrate some really nasty sides -- most of the guys toss around racial epithets without hesitation, Gates trades hot news stories to female reporters for sex and Conrad lustily cheers the death of a harmless "rag head" during the film's opening scene. These are deeply flawed men without many redemptive qualities, but when their greed and disregard for the rules inadvertently gives them a first-hand understanding of what the Gulf War has done to many innocent families, their collective moral compass (fractured though it may be) sternly pushes them in the right direction.
One of the most moving and effective elements of Three Kings is the manner in which Russell underlines the universal elements of humanity buried beneath the more superficial cultural differences and language barriers. "You think America is Satan, right?" the oblivious Conrad asks one Iraqi citizen. "No, I just want to open a hair salon," the citizen replies. There's a particularly harrowing sequence midway through the film in which Troy has a lengthy conversation with his captor (a very good Said Taghmaoui, Hidalgo), as their introspective, thoughtful dialogue is punctuated by moments of torture. While every person is different, there are basic strengths and weaknesses that most humans share. Three Kings offers an unflinching look at multiple demonstrations of both.
The primary roles are well-cast, as everyone hits just the right note for their character. Clooney is sturdy and weathered as Gates, the default leader of the group and arguably the most mature individual. Ice Cube aces a blend of frustrated cynicism and sweetly naive spirituality ("I got a ring of protective Jesus fire around me wherever I go," he confidently declares). Spike Jonze, the very intelligent director of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, does a surprisingly convincing job as the film's dumbest character. If anyone steals the show, it's Mark Wahlberg, whose nuanced and sensitive turn is among his best work. His sense of comic timing and his dramatic instincts have rarely been better. Russell seems to have a knack for drawing quality work out of Wahlberg; the actor's performance in the underrated I Heart Huckabees is another career highlight.
It's a bit difficult to fairly judge the film's 1080p/2.40:1 hi-def transfer, as Russell makes a lot of stylistic choices that often closely resemble the sort of problems caused by a bad transfer. For instance, brighter scenes have a tendency to look very washed-out at times, certain moments are plagued by an absurd amount of grain and flesh tones sometimes look very off. However, a large portion of this is due to Russell's visual tinkering. The film's unique palette serves the drama well, but there are moments where the transfer actually is to blame. Flecks and scratches pop up on occasion that shouldn't be there, and there's a level of softness that's a little bothersome from time to time. Still, detail is strong throughout and blacks are mostly rich and deep. The audio, while feeling a bit compressed at times, is a sturdy and well-mixed track that gets the job done quite well. The eclectic soundtrack has a lot of kick, the sound design is impressively complex and dialogue is clear.
The generous supplemental package offered on the DVD release is offered once again this time around, highlighted by two audio commentaries: One with Russell and one with producers Charles Roven and Edward L. McDonnell. Next up is a handful of featurettes: "Under the Bunker: On the Set of Three Kings" (22 minutes), "On the Set of Three Kings with Production Designer Catherine Hardwicke" (15 minutes), "The Cinematography of Three Kings: An Interview with Director of Photography Newton Thomas Sigel" (7 minutes), "Director David O. Russell's Three Kings Video Journal" (14 minutes) and the tongue-in-cheek "An Intimate Look at the Acting Process with Ice Cube" (2 minutes). Finally, you get some deleted scenes and a trailer. Nothing new, but it's a solid package nonetheless.
Three Kings deserves to stand alongside The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker as one of the best war films of the past 20 years. If you haven't seen it, you've missed out on a modern classic. The Blu-ray release doesn't add anything new, but it's strong enough to warrant an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes