‘Three Kings’: A Thematically Dense Take on American Military Action in the Gulf

Say what you want about director David O. Russell’s working methods, but the fact of the matter is he gets the job done when it counts. Notorious for his on-set difficulties, including spats with actors (a few of which can be seen on YouTube), as well as erratic behavior towards crew members, Russell’s frenetic mindset might just be what gives his films that extra kick. Case in point, his brilliant and masterful 1999 Gulf War film Three Kings. Surreal, comic, chaotic, and at times, tragically sad, Three Kings offers a thematically dense take on American military action in the Gulf that is even more relevant given the post-9/11 international climate.

Originally conceived as a Gulf War heist film by writer John Ridley, Russell seized the concept and made it his own by writing the screenplay entirely by himself, much to the chagrin of Ridley. Russell filters the widely broadcasted military conflict through a postmodern lens with pop culture references, as well as bizarre and surreal visuals, sort of creating an Apocalypse Now for the MTV generation. The ambivalent message can be read plainly as pro-troops and anti-war, but after the misguided Second Gulf War, the film’s exploration of the absurdity of modern warfare and American political hypocrisy is especially pertinent.

Taking place in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, the film follows the exploits of four soldiers looking to steal gold that Iraqi forces had taken from Kuwait. When new father Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and his dim but likeable friend Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) find a hidden map in an Iraqi soldier’s rectum, the two soldiers take it to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube). When veteran soldier Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) gets wind of rumors stating the map was found via seasoned television reporter Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), he convinces the three that the document is a map of Saddam’s bunkers containing gold worth millions of dollars.

The four soldiers set off in search of the gold in a Humvee making the film feel like a bizarre road trip/war film hybrid. Thanks to the cease-fire orders from President Bush, the group is able to secure the gold safely. Although they originally plan to get in and out of the bunkers as quickly as possible, when Iraqi Republican Guard troops execute an Iraqi prisoner, their humanity prevents them from leaving the other prisoners behind. A firefight ensues which pits the team, now aided by Iraqi rebel forces consisting of villagers and defectors, against Saddam’s loyalist soldiers.

The casting for the film proved to be one of its greatest strengths. Clooney is perfect for the role of the disillusioned veteran soldier Gates, while Wahlberg showed he could follow up his impressive performance in 1997’s Boogie Nights. The most interesting casting choices, however, were Ice Cube and Spike Jonze. Cube’s film career had wavered at that point, and given his notorious anti-military stance expressed earlier in his rap career, he injects a lot of personality into the film. The same can be said for director Spike Jonze, who having never acted before, completely embodies the endearing doofus Conrad. Visually, Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use several experimental film techniques, resulting in a gritty and realistic portrayal of war that avoids action clichés and is unlike any other war film you’ll see.

The Blu-ray release of Three Kings includes a brand new high definition transfer that will be worth the upgrade for fans of the film. The unusual visual style of the film makes it hard to speak of the video’s crispness, but in general the HD transfer looks great, with vibrant colors and excellent detail showing a large improvement over the DVD. There are no exclusive bonus features for the Blu-ray, but fortunately the DVD already came packed with a load of great material, such as commentaries, production featurettes, deleted scenes, and interviews with the cast and crew.

RATING 9 / 10