Three Kings

The Gulf War has just ended. Television correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") is hot on the trail of Green Beret Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) for an exclusive story on this 'media war.' He dodges her when he hears that hot-shot Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg, "Boogie Nights") has found a map on a POW that shows the location of Sadaam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold - a veritable treasure map. They, along with Staff Sergeant Elgin (Ice Cube, "Anaconda") and the Barlow-worshipping Private Vig (director Spike Jonze, in his acting debut) set out in a Humvee at dawn to make their killing and be back by lunchtime.

Laura's Review: A

"Are we shooting? Are we shooting?" Captain Barlow calls across a sun-cracked desert terrain as he spies an armed Iraqi soldier in the opening sequence of "Three Kings." Receiving no answer, he shoots the enemy in the throat - his first kill of a war that's over. Approaching the man, Barlow watches him die a horrible death. Director Russell makes every bullet jarringly felt in a film that uses a lot of them. Writer/director David O. Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster") has made a huge leap forward with his third film. This audacious, hyper-stylized multi-tiered film achieves on many levels. Russell's screenplay is an action-adventure story, a war film, a blackly humorous satire and an indictment of American foreign politics all rolled into one. The cynical Gates stops along their journey for the group to practice their assault on a lone steer. The steer is blown sky high and the group proceeds covered in cow, which aids their mission by painting them as vicious slaughterers to the Iraqi Army. When they find the first bunker at the bottom of a remote town plaza's well (surreally filled with Cuisinarts, TVs and cell phones), the Iraqi soldiers simply step aside. The foursome find a row of suitcases filled with gold bullion which they repack in a convenient stash of Gucci luggage and enlist the Iraqis to help haul it out. Before they can leave town, however, they witness the Iraqi Army's terrorism of Iraqi civilian rebels - people whom George Bush has urged to rise up against Hussein, then failed to support. First Barlow, then Gates' humanity calls them to become reluctant heroes and the next thing they know they've restarted the war and are saddled with a group of Iraqi citizens yearning to escape to the Iran border. George Clooney finds his second terrific role in a row with Archie Gates. His grizzled cynicism and sarcastic rebelliousness are well mixed with inate intelligence and bravery. Mark Wahlberg's Barlow earns the respect given him by Vig for entirely different reasons. Barlow's taken hostage by the Iraqis and submitted to torture yet comes to empathize with their predicament and question his own government. He's yearning for his young wife and baby at home (whom he calls when he finds a cache of cell phones in an attempt to be rescued). Ice Cube is the spiritual member of the group as Elgin, the most grounded. Spike Jonze's Vig is hilariously dim as the uneducated red neck ('Like the cubes you put in soup?' he asks Gates when Archie tells of the Kuwaiti bullion stored in their map's bunkers). Fine support is given by Nora Dunn's ambitious reporter, Mykelti Williamson's no nonsense, policy abiding Colonel Horn and Jamie Kennedy ("Scream") as Walter, another dimwitted soldier who Gates assigns to distract Cruz. Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel ("Apt Pupil") is stunning, with the intial part of the film shot in Ektachrome, a stock normally used for still photography, and processed using a technique called bleach bypass, which leaves a layer of silver on the negative. This produces a strange look where nothing appears quite real - a highly effective device to highlight the alien nature of the characters' surroundings. Special effects, such as the camera following a bullet through the human body or the characters' memories, shown in cartoon-like fashion, are eye popping. Locations in Arizona and Mexico combined with Catherine Hardwicke's ("Tank Girl") production design recreate the Iraqi terrain. The soundtrack is inventively chosen. The surreal quality of the whole package often recalls "Apocalypse Now." "Three Kings" is dynamic collaborative filmmaking and one heck of a yarn.

Robin's Review: A-

It's the end of Operation Desert Storm. The combined Allied forces have whipped Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Army and, now, the victors are getting ready to leave. While on a mission to collect and disarm Iraqi soldiers, Sgt. Troy Barlow discovers a map hidden down the pants of one of the prisoners. The map, he discovers, shows the location of a couple of hidden bunkers. Troy and his friends, Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin and Pvt. Conrad Vig, realize the map is important, but don't know why. Enter Special Forces Major Archie Gates, a seasoned vet who comes to the conclusion that the chart shows the location of millions of dollars worth of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion. Taking off on an unauthorized recon mission to find the gold and set themselves up for life, the quartet are heading for something far bigger than just money in director David O. Russell's "Three Kings." When I first started to see the trailers for "Three Kings," I thought that it smacked of similarity to the 1970 Clint Eastwood war spoof, "Kelly's Heroes." Boy, was I wrong. "Kings" is anything but a caper movie. Sure, the premise is the same - stolen gold just waiting for the maverick American troops to take it and make their fortune. But, the gold becomes a secondary character as the true nature of things evolves. Their plan to "leave at dawn and be back by lunch" goes completely awry when the have a face-to-face encounter with the Iraqi people, a people now left to hang out to dry by international policy. George Bush, at the height of the 100-hour land war, encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the dictator, Saddam, with promises of support. Then the war ended and American foreign policy turned its back on the Iraqi people, not lifting a finger to stop the massacre of the Iraqis by their own army. Archie, Troy, Chief and Conrad, on their journey to find booty, fall into a microcosm of these events at one of the bunker sites. There, they confront Iraqi troops torturing the rebels and killing innocent women and children. The red-blooded American soldiers are incensed by this brutal injustice and decide to turn the tables. This is the real story of "Three Kings" as they four vow to save as many of the civilians as they can and get the gold, too. "Three Kings" is a pleasant surprise of a film. On the surface, it promises to be a good-looking actioner with appealing stars, lots of blow 'em up special F/X and a fast-paced story. But, it is much more than that. It deals with the politics of American foreign policy, the responsibility of the strong to take care of the weak, and the suffering of the innocents when that responsibility is not honored. Helmer David O. Russell's first two films ("Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting with Disaster") gave no indication of the near masterly capabilities he displays in "Three Kings." He adapted the original story, by John Ridley, for the screen and harnesses an astonishing amount of energy and film sense in this portrayal of an erstwhile treasure hunt that turns into a quest to save human lives. This actioner has more heart and soul than it has a right to have. The use of fast-paced humor in the midst of the bleak events keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. You realize that, along with the explosions, mayhem and mirth, you learn some things that aren't really well known about the Gulf War and its aftermath. "Three Kings" proudly wears its heart on its shirtsleeve. The production values are outstanding on all levels. There are the normal and expected kick-ass fireworks as cows are blown up, Humvees destroyed and with shootouts galore. There are also highly technical, in your face effects as Archie explains to his battleground novices just what happens when you get shot. You get an inside view of a bullet entering the human body and doing its lethal damage. This effect is later used when Sgt. Troy takes a bullet himself and has a lung collapse. It's a vivid, graphic depiction of the horror that war intrudes on the individual. Photography, by Newton Thomas Sigel ("The Usual Suspects") is innovative and looks great. A process called bleach bypass was used in developing the film, giving it colorless hard edge that lends a surreal quality to the finished product. The acting by the principles and supporting cast is uniformly solid. It's a true ensemble film, with secondary characters, like Amir (Cliff Curtis) as a father and rebel who just wants his little girl to live in freedom, given three dimensions to work in. The stars are believable, with Mark Wahlberg getting the meatiest role as Sgt. Troy, a new daddy who just wants to go home to wife and baby. Clooney, Ice Cube and newcomer Spike Jonze give yeomen's efforts to their solid performances. Nora Dunn, as CNN-style correspondent Adriana Cruz, gives a rich and sensitive performance as a reporter who believes in her work and is emotionally affected by the horrors she sees. You don't often get a film that is the caliber of "Three Kings." You get the roller-coaster ride you expect and a heck of a lot more. It's a treat when you think you're going to get a no-brainer and have your mind expanded a little bit. Go see it for the effects, action and treasure hunt story, but enjoy the intelligence, too.