When it comes to rousing action, whip-smart laughs and moral uplift that doesn't pump sunshine up your ass, Three Kings rules. Director-writer David O. Russell aims for a seeming contradiction: a thoughtful Gulf War shoot-'em-up. He shoots, he scores. The photo above shows George Clooney with Russell, who doesn't let the E.R. charm boy rely on the bland TV cuteness that has compromised his screen roles (Out of Sight excepted). As Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates – a hard case whose ideas of patriotism and humanity are soured by political expediency – Clooney uncovers the grieving heart of a burned-out cynic and gives his finest performance to date.
It's Archie who masterminds a plot to steal a hidden cache of Kuwaiti gold bullion that Saddam Hussein had already stolen from the sheiks. Archie figures he deserves a reward for being forced to baby-sit TV journalists like Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) who buy into what he considers a hollow victory. Archie's big win hinges on a treasure map discovered by three politically naive Army reservists: Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), a blue-collar husband and dad; Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), a religious man with a dead-end job as an airport baggage handler; and Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a high-school dropout from the Deep South.
Though Three Kings is charged with visual inventiveness – Newton Thomas Sigel's camerawork is drunk on its own daring – Russell is hunting bigger game. The search for gold is just his excuse to open the eyes of these soldiers to a war, a country and a people they barely understand. While George Bush makes political hay out of liberating Kuwait, Saddam stays in power and Iraqi civilians are killed by their own army, with U.S. forces forbidden to intervene.
This renegade war movie is a rare bird to come from Warner Bros., since most major studios wouldn't lavish a $50 million budget on a project that attacks U.S. foreign policy. Better yet, the job is entrusted to an indie director with limited experience – the 1994 incest comedy Spanking the Monkey (cost: $80,000) and the 1996 sex farce Flirting With Disaster (cost: $7 million). How do such miracles occur? Don't ask. A simple hallelujah will suffice.
Three Kings begins, fittingly, in chaos. "Are we shooting people, or what?" asks a scared Troy as he aims at an armed Iraqi soldier who doesn't seem to know the war has just ended. Troy's shot hits the enemy's neck. "Congratulations, you got yourself a raghead," says Conrad, who takes pictures with the corpse.
It's a grisly scene, and Russell heightens the horror in a flashback during which Conrad exaggerates to his buddies about how Troy blew the Iraqi's head off. Cut to: a head flying off. Gratuitous? Nah. There is no throwaway violence in this movie. It all stings. The impact of even a single shot is illustrated in a soon-to-be-famous scene that traces the surrealistic and deadly journey of one bullet into a body cavity.
Dark humor bubbles up constantly, notably when Conrad – on Troy's orders – is coerced to retrieve the rolled-up treasure map from an Iraqi officer's ass. Map in hand, Archie figures it'll be a only half-day trip in a Humvee for the quartet to grab the gold. But the foray into Iraqi territory leads to traps, torture and an important realization for these mercenary Americans, who finally see the consequences of their actions. In trying to find the moral bearings of their characters, the actors shine. Wahlberg hasn't been this electric since Boogie Nights. Ice Cube is a force of nature as Chief slams Conrad's references to Iraqi prisoners as "dune coons" or "sand niggers." And Jonze is a daredevil revelation. Known for his award-winning music videos (Puff Daddy, Björk) and a first feature (Being John Malkovich) that's already winning him raves as a visionary, Jonze doesn't miss a beat as he moves Conrad from sweetly vulnerable (he seems to harbor a crush on Troy) to sadistic (he threatens prisoners with a gun).
Archie and his conflicted cohorts all experience a crisis of conscience in the hallucinatory craziness of a war that allows for underground bunkers stacked with cell phones, Cuisinarts and other high-tech booty, and a chase across the desert in luxury cars. The jokes don't douse Russell's rage against corrupted values, they fuel it. Russell has the mark of a major filmmaker: He's fearless.