MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Satirical Black Comedy War/Stars: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Cliff Curtis, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Saïd Taghmaoui, Mykelti Williamson, Holt McCallany, Judy Greer, Alia Shawkat, Jim Gaffigan/ Runtime: 115 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by asking a question that I feel is really pertinent to this review: why in the world is this movie titled Three Kings when there are a quartet of guys at the heart of the story rather than a trinity? Indeed suffice it to say that whilst this slice of cinematic pie’s title might not make the most sense in the world that is ok when everything else to be found in this film is fairly spot-on. Indeed operating as one of only a select few movies to regale us with a narrative that is set during the Gulf War in the 90s, this slice of cinematic pie from infamous film helmer David O. Russell is one that does a brilliant job at compare/contrasting the joy that comes with a swift triumph, the chaos of combat, the inherent greed that all men possess, and the strength of the heart and soul to override just about any desires from a physical or psychological perspective. As such, Three Kings really truly is a war film that manages to acquire significantly more meaning than its war zone setting and typical action beats might suggest. At the same time though isn’t a combat zone a terrific locale for a movie like this since where else could you better see the very core of a man on display than in a place where every part of him is consistently challenged with every single choice he makes? To that end, Three Kings might be a slice of cinematic pie where the proverbial war is nearing its end, but the internal conflict that is continuously a ’brewing in a man’s soul is only just getting started. Indeed what may start in this film as a simple postwar heist designed to make a quartet of soldiers a little bit better off than before they went overseas is able to transform into a unnerving and borderline horrifically real look at the chaos that exists past the various mission objectives and is the place where the fallout of conflict resides. Fallout that takes the form of those who in equal measure go through heaven and hell through it as well as where your personal choices and your morals can be put to the most definitive kind of examination imaginable. Of course it also doesn’t hurt that for as much as this movie is thematically gripping it’s also just plain engaging and entertaining as well thus making for one ride through the deserts of the Middle East that you’ll never forget
The plot is as follows: Three Kings opens its riveting narrative as we see that the Gulf War is in its last stages, but a genuine conflict is about to emerge for a quartet of American soldiers as they go on an odyssey to locate a reserve of gold that is somewhere around a place called Karbala that incidentally is just outside the U.S. Army’s operational borders in the area. As for how they know it’s there, it is due to the efforts of a reservist by the name of Troy Barlow and a dolt of a soldier by the name of Conrad Vig in uncovering a map whilst searching a group of recent POW’s for any guns, explosives, or other weaponry. To that end, we see this dynamic duo partner up with their c.o. , one Chief Elgin, to both figure out what the map says and to go with them to take the gold out from under the Iraqis’ noses and leave their time in the desert a few million dollars richer than when they arrives. Of course it isn’t long before another man, a Major in Special Forces by the name of Archie Gates learns of their plot to take the gold and yet he isn’t aiming to discipline them. Rather, he wants in and so we see that, with some guns, bombs, and a getaway vehicle, the men set out to get the gold. Yet whilst on their odyssey we soon see that the men are also able to see for themselves not only how terrifying combat can be, but also the foundation of genocide that has come about due to the Army’s literal ditching of the people in this part of the world. Thus it isn’t long before the quartet find themselves saddled with a decision of what matters more: going home rich or being able to go home with a degree of morality to their name.
Now it is worth noting that this film opens up with quite the unreal group of events that show us a squad of soldiers who are literally anything but petrified by the war-stricken locale that they are in. Rather, it is finding out who has some additional gum and getting some sand stuck in a person’s eye which take priority and it is only with the arrival of a white-flag bearing enemy that the soldiers finally remember just where in the world they are located. Thus the stage is set fairly well for a movie that shows a conflict at the end of fighting yet as the movie goes on, we soon see that the real fighting only starts after the announcement of peace. Not just for our thieving quartet, but also for all the people in the surrounding area as well. To that end, this slice of cinematic pie frames itself around the question of if money or morals are more valuable to men. Of course it shouldn’t surprise you to learn which of these the victor is in that internal squabble, but this film is still able to obtain a bountiful degree of meaning as the odyssey goes on. Not just when looking at this through the prism of right and wrong, but also in the characters’ internal voyage leading towards a higher degree of morality that permits to not exactly see what they’re doing as wrong per se, but rather to reshuffle their priorities and put their lives in hock for a cause they can’t just walk away from let alone turn a blind eye towards. Indeed these men are able to uncover that combat, by and large, is not just about what is put to paper in various textbooks or what reporters on TV say about it. Rather, it is about the pain and agony that arise in the aftermath of combat that go undetected once a winner has been declared and the victory celebrations have long since ended.
Now despite being rooted in well-thought out pathos, this slice of cinematic pie is also a film that comes equipped with quite a bit in the way of both energy and intrigue respectively. Indeed the movie manages to find a wonderful balancing act where the pathos is the main thing, but is aided immensely by top-notch comedy and some moments of well-done action. It is also worth mentioning that this movie utilizes the culture and music of the time in which it was made to brilliantly define the relaxed vibe that is going to be called to task by the end of the movie whilst several pop culture allusions simply contribute to some unnerving moments of dialogue between some of the characters during a quite visceral interrogation. Yet it is that insertion of pop culture references that only make this film more riveting as we see that the things we take for granted on a daily basis are often times juxtaposed against a background of genocide that often occurs right in front of the characters in this film thus forcing them to decide between staying relaxed and safe or getting involved and possibly losing their careers and lives. Just as good as all of this however is the fact that the bonds that are there between the main cast members really aid the relaxed vibe and the ominous realisticness of the middle and end to such an extent that everything about these guys genuinely seems both organic and relatable thus helping make our quartet of “heroes” become that much more endearing. Indeed it’s the bond that these men have with one another that more than their distinct mannerisms, the choices they make, and their quippy way of talking to one another that aid in rooting this movie in a degree of believability that this film do desperately needed. Finally, it should also be noted that this film is the wonderful recipient of both some truly skilled handheld camerawork, but also a purposely visceral and relentless appearance that functions so incredibly that a lot of the components to how this film looks have been adopted by a lot of other films in the war genre since this one was first released.
All in all for some unknown reason that even I have never been able to figure out, the 90s conflict that was the Persian Gulf War is one that the land of movie magic doesn’t exactly seem too keen on making movies about. Indeed maybe it’s how small this conflict was, the lack of people griping about it back here in the States, the surprising ease with which we were able to win in regards to the strategies utilized by our military, or all of the above. Yet no matter which answer is the right one, the fact still remains that this conflict has not given audiences nearly as many movies as those which deal with either World War 2 or Vietnam. Yet this doesn’t mean that the amount we have gotten are terrible by any means as I would say that slices of cinematic pie like Jarhead and this one are honestly some of the finest under the radar war movies made in the past 20-30 years. Suffice it to say that what makes a film like this one so novel however is that the era and locale don’t really matter when looking at this movie as a whole. This is because this slice of cinematic pie is built around a familiar saga of the human condition which sees a man squaring off with himself as he finds himself trying to figure out if his own selfish desires or an innate code of morals with be the thing to lead him through a series of obstacles and a decision that is one of the most difficult he has had to make. Yes film helmer David O. Russell’s slice of cinematic pie picture is one that is brilliant and significant, but at the same time it is also extremely engaging and wonderfully done on both sides of the camera to thus making for a truly iconic entry in the war genre of movie magic you owe it to yourself to see at least once. On a scale of 1-5 I give Three Kings “99” a solid 4 out of 5.