Three Kings (1999)


Directed by: David O. Russell

Ordinarily a film which features the acting talents of Ice Cube and Jamie Kennedy could swiftly be written off as some kind of god awful mean mugging , stoner extravaganza; but both actors offer something on ‘Three Kings’, the essence of what they are best at, how their limited acting repertoire is their strongest and indeed only suit – in the case of Cube, his one expression, you know, that vacant serious look, makes him a steadying presence in the company of Hollywood heavyweights George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and Kennedy who, as a hopeless soldier driving a dune buggy across the oil rich deserts of Iraq on a wild goose chase in the company of a feisty news reporter and her bemused cameraman, provides an additional dumb dose of light relief.

‘Three Kings’ is a light-hearted albeit pseudo-serious look at the climax of the first Gulf War. Victory was in the bag in less than a year after Operation Desert Storm, and in early 1991 the US Army contained a host of restless troops camped out in the desert who felt rather nervous about going back to the States, and adjusting back to the prospect of civilian life. In a similar spirit to ‘Jarhead’ it reveals a different kind of military experience that we have in recent years grown accustomed to from the military occupation of Afghanistan. Whereas in Afghanistan, patrolling troops have found themselves involved in tense fire fights, seen colleagues blown apart and shot by rogue fire. ‘Three Kings’ and ‘Jarhead’ present the other side of life in a warzone, as idle troops crave war stories that they can take home with them as they unravel in desert tedium.

The film opens with a cluster fuck, as Troy Barlow (played by Wahlberg) shoots dead a surrendering Iraqi soldier. His deed is celebrated by fellow troops, until the stone faced Staff Sergeant Elgin (Cube) comes along and brings the party to a close. In another tent we see Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) shagging a desperate journalist.

A treasure map that is found wedged in between the arse cheeks of another surrendering Iraqi soldier brings the three men, and a slack jawed goon called Conrad Vig (played by Spike Jonze) together. They discover that the map leads to one of Saddam’s bunkers that is rumoured to contain stolen Kuwaiti gold. Figuring they could become rich, they head off, but along the journey find themselves drawn into the post-war conflict when they abruptly decide to help Iraqi civilians who are still being oppressed by the local Republican Guard.

The film is rather unsubtle in its political message. But that doesn’t dilute what is actually being said. As the Coalition Troops, particularly the Americans, found out; the problem with winning a war, yet leaving a maniacal dictator in charge, is that when your army pulls out of the defeated country, the people will continue to suffer as the dictator attempts to reassert control of his population. The message of ‘Three Kings’ was made all the more relevant post 9/11, when US Troops returned to Iraq and in blunt terms finished the job by eliminating Saddam Hussein as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, or depending on which way you look at it, going on a pointless treasure hunt in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

On set bickering between director David O. Russell and George Clooney blighted the production of ‘Three Kings’, which first established Russell’s reputation as a visionary auteur who is notoriously difficult to work with. There isn’t much evidence of tension in the film, George is a pro throughout and makes for an accomplished lead, and the film is shot artistically, including the use of authentically disorientating handheld cameras. Although the colouring of the film is odd. The bright sun embellished scenes, create a strange uneasy on the eye sheen.

Though not on the epic scale of some of the great Vietnam war films, Russell created a tight film that has a very effective anti-war message which also perfectly illustrates the consequences of violence, showing that a gunshot wound fucking hurts, and isn’t something that a movie action hero can easily walk away from.

The characters in ‘Three Kings’ are all searching for gold. For the news reporters and journalist it is the golden story, for the soldiers it is compensation for risking their lives, and a financial security against dull civilian life, for the Iraqi people it is the gold of freedom. It is all gold really, ‘Three Kings’ is a gilded classic.


Three Kings on IMDB
Buy Three Kings [DVD] [1999]