This is one of these movies that quickly gather good buzz. I myself was fairly intrigued by this apparently impossible to describe Gulf War flick and figured it could either be a masterpiece or a mess, but certainly not banal. Thankfully, we got ourselves yet another masterpiece in this last and possibly most prolific in great movies year of the '90s. To my knowledge this is the first film to revolve around the Gulf War, even though it has ended 8 years ago. David O. Russell's movie gives that conflict the same cynical treatment filmmakers like Cimino, Kubrick and Stone gave the Vietnam war. Because when you think of it, the war against Iraq didn't make much more sense. Supposedly, George Bush (the old one, not his coke-snorting son) and his army bombed the hell out of the country because they had invaded Kuwait. Yet recent history taught us that the United States can be opportunistic, chauvinist capitalists, and there are reasons to believe they were really after Arabian oil for Uncle Sam's big fat SUV.
Russell's script finds a quirky way to unveil the "truth" about operation Desert Storm without falling into tedious military debates. It's March 1991, and war just ended. Saddam Hussein surrendered and moved his troops out of Kuwait, the US signed a cease-fire treaty, everything's peachy. Back on the deserted field, the soldiers are already celebrating, as reporters send images of victory back home. And so we meet Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), an office clerk who joined the army to make some dough for his newborn baby. Opportunity comes a-knocking when he finds a map sticking out of an Iraq prisoner's ass (literally!). With the uneducated deep South slacker Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) and the religious Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), Troy figures that the map shows the way to the fortune in gold buyons Saddam stole from the sheiks. Under the leadership of disillusioned officer Archie Gates (George Clooney), they take off in a Humvee on their way to Iraq bunkers, ready to make a big score.
And then comes the twist, as our cocky, greedy American heroes fall ass backwards in the mess the war put the country into. Okay, Saddam left Kuwait, but why is this evil prick still ruling Iraq? It's as if the US Army started something and left just when things got interesting. Iraq civilians are left in misery, their cities bombed, with their own army killing any threatening element. President Bush told them to rise up against Saddam, and now he's not even sending his Army to back them up. The film is about how Archie and his "three kings" decide to do the right thing and try to help a group of rebels and civilians to escape this hell, even though they have orders not to get involved.
"Three Kings" is a movie in a league of its own. Before you can see similarities with another film, it takes you somewhere else unexpected. There's some smart-ass humor, action scenes as exciting as any non-"Matrix" film you saw this year, politics... Russell (best known for indie gems like "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting with Disaster") gives it all a stylish look, with a camera that barely ever stops moving to keep us right where the action is, and bleached, almost surreal photography and various visual tricks that keep the movie sparkling and unpredictable. It kind of has the maverick feel of the best parts of "Saving Private Ryan", but it also has the good sense to drop the patriotism and send a strong anti-war message instead. There's a particularly inspired shot that shows you how horrible it really is when a bullet hits you in the gut. But don't think it's all dread and suffering. Russell gives his film an even more offbeat feel by scoring it with pop songs by the Beach Boys, Chicago, U2 and even the ultra campy Plastic Bertrand!
Let's also give its dues to the ensemble cast led by George Clooney, who is shaping himself into the new Mr. Cool. I really like how, on top of his TV charisma and rugged hunkiness, he's also a great actor who can be alternately playful, badass and cynical. I also really liked Mark Wahlberg's performance. He's another one you could have been tempted to dismiss as "just a Calvin Klein model" before his glorious turn as "Boogie Nights"' Dirk Diggler. Here he confirms furthermore his acting abilities, especially in the scenes where he's conversing with the Iraq soldier who's torturing him and he realizes they're not all that different. Rapper Ice Cube is good too and so is music video director Spike Jonze, who I think is acting on film for the first time (unless you count his dancing in Fatboy Slim's "Praise You"). Overall, "Three Kings" is a rare blend of breath-taking action and thoughtful writing, and easily one of the best movies of 1999.