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.