Director David O. Russell pulls the end of the Persian Gulf War for the setting of his 1999 film Three Kings. Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze, the story revolves around a small group of soldiers who discover a map to a hidden stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold. The soldiers set off on a self-appointed mission to liberate it.
The common sentiment echoed by several characters in Three Kings is “I don’t understand what this war is about.” Within any organized operation, that’s generally not what you want to hear. But yet it seems to be an underlying theme in many war films, and this one mines that confusion for both humorous and dramatic purposes.
Major Archie Gates (Clooney) is two weeks away from retirement, and the end of his campaign in Iraq. Let’s just say he’s a bit jaded by this point, and when he stumbles upon a couple of reserve soldiers who discovered a map to one of Saddam’s hidden bunkers on a captured Iraqi, he decides he should be able to take something home for all of his hard work. The reservists (Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Jonze) are initially hesitant, but ultimately glad to be doing something, anything, in what for them has been a rather uneventful war. And of course what should have been a rather simple recovery mission becomes a little more complicated.
One of the great balancing acts of the movie is how it deftly manages to maintain both its comic and dramatic tones throughout the film. The comic bumbling of the soldiers never overpowers the serious events of the story as they unfold, but in turn the story also receives some levity and never becomes too preachy. It helps that it’s set during a war that hasn’t already been over-filmed, and whose true purpose generally was a bit up in the air.
All the leads deliver credible performances, and director David O. Russell holds everything together with precision. Three Kings works because it delivers on several levels. Yes, it’s a war movie with a serious message to it. And yes, it’s a fun popcorn action movie. It somehow manages both at the same time, and succeeds on both fronts.
It’s hard to criticize the rough-and-tumble genre of war films too much on the visual front. After all, it’s supposed to look gritty, right? Three Kings certainly does. Although part of its high-contrast look is intentional, it’s more difficult to argue for some of the rest. A mix of film stock – some more volatile or high grain than others – and shifting color balances are just distracting in spots. Other scenes are just too washed-out to mesh seamlessly. Granted, none of this can really be penned down on the high definition transfer, and by all accounts this film probably looks about as good as it will get. And it does look “good”, just not even.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio track fares better, and overall is solid. If you can’t make use of good surround spacing in a war film, then you’re just not trying. And thankfully for us, Three Kings delivers well beyond try. If there’s a criticism it’s that things sometimes feel constrained until you get to battle scenes, which can make levels feel unbalanced. Dialogue sections go by grounded to the front, and then all of a sudden everything opens up when there’s gunfire. It’s mainly a small complaint, but something that keeps it from being a “great” audio track.
The disc comes with an generous assortment of bonus material, although it should be noted that all supplemental video is in standard definition. The details for the bonus section are:
- Commentary track with director David O. Russell – Russell provides an enthusiastic and informative commentary track for the film, touching on all aspects of the film from tailoring up the script to technical production hurdles. Of the two commentary tracks included this is the one to devote your time to.
- Commentary track with producers Charles Roven and Edward L. McDonnell – Although the two producers provide some good insights, it occasionally feels like a long pitch for the film as opposed to just about it. Informative, but a touch extraneous.
- Under the Bunker (SD, 21:32) – A standard, but sufficient, behind the scenes look at making the film. Including cast and crew interviews, technical advisers, film clips and location information, this one touches all the bases for how the movie came together.
- On the Set of ‘Three Kings’ (SD, 10:15) – Production Designer Catherine Hardwicke hosts a guided tour of the main set for Three Kings and also details the process of bringing it to life. A solid feature on how to design something that isn’t supposed to look designed.
- The Cinematography of ‘Three Kings’ (SD, 7:06) – Director of Photography Thomas Newton Sigel explains the intent behind the stark look of the film. Interesting for film geeks, but some of his explanations aren’t terribly convincing.
- David O. Russell’s ‘Three Kings’ Video Journal (SD, 13:37) – A candid, but random look at the process of getting a film made. Russell includes home video from the time between when he was pitching the film to its red carpet premiere.
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 6:37) – A handful of deleted and alternate scenes. A couple that are interesting, but none that shed too much extra light on the story.
- An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process with Ice Cube (SD, 2:21) – A humorous short starring Ice Cube, as he prepares for one of his “big scenes” in the movie.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:10)
Three Kings is definitely an above-average war movie, and in fact should hold interest for those not typically drawn towards the war genre. The unusual setting for the film, coupled with strong performances from all the leads, make this a worthy catalog title to check out if you have not already done so.