Three Kings is a new kind of war film: a happy-go-lucky combat thrill coaster. The director, David O. Russell, uses the military aftershocks of the Persian Gulf War as an excuse to stage a series of highly intense and overscaled action jolts. For all its vividness, the movie is deliberately hyper and disorienting. Russell jackknifes you right into the unstable center of scenes; his camera never stops hurtling through bunkers and encampments, and the handsomely bleached, newsreel-vivid images are dense with blood and excitement and fear. A milk truck may get blown up with barely a moment’s warning, and so may a soldier’s head. Yet the movie isn’t all tightly wired death games. When one of the heroes, a young Army sergeant named Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), gets thrown into a makeshift prison, he spies a box full of cellular phones, finds one that works, and calls his wife – who immediately picks up from her kitchen back in the States.
The funny thing is, you absolutely believe that he could make that call. Three Kings isn’t a comedy, exactly, but it has a hipster’s detachment, one that’s meant to mirror the jadedness of contemporary soldiers who are insulated from the very combat for which they’ve been trained.
In Iraq, just after the U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm, Barlow and two other Americans, Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), stumble upon a map revealing a stash of Kuwaiti gold bullion that has been stolen by Saddam Hussein’s thugs. (They find the map sticking out of a wounded soldier’s butt.) The Americans may have beaten back Saddam, but they know that it was a triumph of technology more than valor. They’re high-concept winners in a war fought — and broadcast — mostly on video screens, and so they don’t feel quite victorious; they feel restless. Under the command of Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), the film’s cynical/noble Humphrey Bogart figure, they decide to go in and swipe the gold for themselves. The plan, of course, blows up in their faces, creating an ironic surrogate for a battle they barely got to fight.
In form, Three Kings is a classically structured mercenary adventure story, but it’s paced and shot with the jacked-up frenzy of an existential war-is-hell epic. It’s The Man Who Would Be King meets Salvador, with additional elements lifted from M*A*S*H, The Killing Fields, Catch-22, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan. Russell, who turned familial discord into irritatingly glib and hectic farce in Flirting With Disaster, now seems to want to get his kicks anywhere he can find them. Three Kings has a mood of jangled anxiety that verges, at moments, on true moral terror, yet the film never quite makes it there. I think that’s because the blithe bravado of Russell’s staging is so transparently engineered — and to me, at least, a bit exhausting. The movie is framed with a conventional liberal high-mindedness (the Americans end up trying to escort 55 Iraqis to safety across the Iranian border), but at its core it’s unabashedly a ride, a celebration of jock-king looters zapping the enemies around them.
Clooney, more than ever, displays his extraordinarily facile gift for acting cool and unflappable in the midst of utter chaos. Everything he says spins by with mocking egotistical zip. His action-figure urgency holds Three Kings together, yet after a while Clooney’s star turn begins to seem as relentless as the movie. It’s Wahlberg who brings a sense of discovery to his scenes, especially when Troy, tortured with electroshock, learns about the plight of the soldiers he’s up against. As the Iraqi who enlightens him, Said Taghmaoui has an eloquent, authoritative presence; he alone makes you feel that there’s something at stake besides gold.
Three Kings takes a comfortable proletarian view of Desert Storm. It salutes the soldiers on both sides of the conflict and tweaks President Bush for failing to sustain the U.S. commitment to the Iraqi rebels. On some level, that’s an unassailable stance, but I’d have appreciated it more if it didn’t issue from a movie that took such a disreputable boys’-club delight in images of trucks careering madly over land mines or a bomb being tossed like a football. Three Kings is so overstuffed with random fireworks that despite its politics, it’s easy to imagine the film getting a four-star rave from Bush or Saddam.