In the closing days and immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, George Bush made a monumental humanitarian error by calling on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Interpreting Bush’s insistent and repeated calls as a promise of aid, tens of thousands Shiite Muslims rushed to fill the power vacuum left behind when Saddam’s Republican Guard was forced to flee the cities of southern Iraq. Whether their efforts could have led to an actual coup is debatable, but whatever hope they did have disappeared for good when General Norman Schwarzkopf unthinkingly gave permission to the Iraqi military to fly about the shattered country in armed helicopters. Using his remaining gunships, Saddam needed less than two weeks to restore order – and in the process, thousands of Shiites are thought to have been butchered.
These events would make a bold and startling backdrop for any mainstream film, and the first half hour or so of David O. Russell’s Three Kings comes at you like it’s been shot out of a cannon: you think you may be watching an unforgettable movie. Much of Three Kings has a high manic energy, and nothing in it – not the camera set-ups or the film stock or the charged rhythms – are quite what we’re used to seeing in our action flicks. The movie is a splendid re-creation of the Gulf War, with its horizonless landscapes and shabby desert towns, and of the American recruits’ vigorous postures and attitudes. And it’s filled with details that are fresh and absolutely right, such as the bluish face of a dead soldier who’s been half-buried in his trench, or the gag in a prisoner’s mouth that looks like a huge popsicle stick, or the G.I. who gets a splinter in his finger just as he’s about to blast some Iraqis out of their bunker. Russell also has a beautiful ear for silky, fluid speech. His dialogue is a smoothly accented blend of jargon and banter that his actors can speak as rapidly as they want to without losing us – it’s like a foreign language we can understand on first hearing.
Russell works a variation on the theme of American innocence and Old World experience by having his characters come face-to-face with the brutal nature of Iraq’s internal political realities. In the wake of the cease-fire agreement, four malcontent soldiers (played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) get their mitts on a hand-drawn map that shows where the retreating Iraqis have hidden a cache of stolen Kuwaiti bullion. Together they set out in a humvee, planning to "leave at dawn and be back by lunch," but when they manage to locate the gold, they also stumble onto a band of Iraqi dissidents that Saddam’s troops have stashed away. Realizing that leaving them behind would be tantamount to a death sentence, the soldiers decide to use their own freshly minted status as conquerors to escort the dissidents and their families to safety in Iran.
Russell’s heart is in the right place even if his head always isn’t. He doesn’t rig his drama so that the guys will seem like losers if they don’t get the gold, and he’s willing to look at a few facts that are generally ignored in motion pictures, such as the notions that violence causes suffering and that people may have legitimate reasons for being your enemy. In what will probably become the movie’s most talked-about scene, an Iraqi solider who is torturing Wahlberg pauses long enough to justify his actions – American bombs have killed his son – in a speech of insistent, bitter madness. But this view from the other side isn’t elaborated on beyond mere utterance. On the contrary, a fatuous moment occurs when Wahlberg, given a chance to avenge himself on his torturer, pointedly declines to do so – we know we’re back in Hollywood when people can digest complex moral lessons even while sitting in a torture chair.
But all of the main characters in Three Kings are prone to rapid conversions. Clooney in particular changes from a cynical adventurer into a do-gooder in just the time it takes to type out a new kind of dialogue for him. Russell is too smart not to know that more character development was required; it looks like he was so intent on keeping things moving along and blowing up that he forgot to put his people through their proper paces.
This forced-march tempo undercuts some of the movie’s most potent scenes. When the sight of pelicans mired in one of Saddam’s engineered oil-spills cracks the reserve of a callous TV reporter (Nora Dunn), her outburst has barely begun before a G.I. tries to exploit the chink in her armor by using the moment to hit on her. The birds are still suffering right in front of the characters but the movie is no longer interested in them – and why should it be, when it can be encouraging us to laugh at the G.I.’s brazen insincerity? It’s as if Russell distrusted the idea of churning up any serious emotions in his audience.
In places Three Kings feels like a Republic serial that’s had dabs of Apocalypse Now’s moral atmosphere grafted onto it: instead of labyrinths or pyramids, its heroes dash through torture chambers. Having decided to make a combined character study, political tract, and action piece, Russell put his puzzle together as best he could, but you can see all of the places where he pounded down the pieces to make them fit. The climax – an astonishingly unfelt showdown at the Iranian border – is easily the most banal scene of Russell’s short career. After wooing the likes of Hawks, Peckinpah, and Pontecorvo, Three Kings decides in the end to go steady with Ron Howard.
Three Kings is most likely to please those people who think of movies as subversive Mickey Finns that can be slipped into the bloodstream of the body politic; these people are going to be certain that the thumbnail sketches of the various Iraqi factions will subliminally nudge the average moviegoer towards a less jingoistic point of view. We needn’t fret over its stooping to this kind of mental date-rape because the movie’s overall effect is surprisingly thin and short lasting. But there’s a real moral funkiness in presenting material like this as "entertainment." With its talented, likable stars, slick photography, and belly-laugh sense of humor, Three Kings casts more shadow than light on the suffering of the Iraqi people; it even manages to leave the bizarre impression that somehow they were better off for our presence there.
– Tom Block