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

Surreal, comic, chaotic, and at times, tragically sad, Three Kings offers a thematically dense take on American military action in the Gulf.

Three Kings

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze
Release Date: 2010-10-12

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.