Three Kings at 20: the war movie where anything was possible


In David O Russells wild 1999 caper, action-packed comedy serves as a sneaky shell for a damning criticism of American foreign policy

” Are we shooting? Are we still shooting people or what ?”

That’s the opening line to David O Russell’s Three Kings and a thesis statement, too. It’s March 1991 and the Gulf war has just aimed, but Sergeant Troy Barlow( Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t know whether the armed Iraqi soldier he’s spied in his scope is a target or not. And the yokels behind him are no help, either: one of them has a grain of sand stuck in his eye. After Barlow takes the shot, the first action any of them have seen in the war, he and his men hover over the twitching body in a scene that recalls the felled sniper at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In both instances, a piece of their humanity is lost, and in both instances not one of them could tell you why.

From there, Russell cuts to a delirious montage of soldiers celebrating the victory like athletes which has recently won a championship game. Probably only a few of them played in the game or understood the rules or even knew what winning meant, other than perhaps ending a miserable, listless tour in the desert. Threading together a party mix that ricochets, among other sungs, from Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA to Public Enemy’s Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man- an incompatible define of artists if there ever was one- Russell may seem like he’s hijacking the delirious rock’n’roll surrealism of Apocalypse Now, but he’s establishing the wild disconnect between the American experience of the Gulf war and what the end of the war actually means for Iraqis. It turns out that” Woo! We liberated Kuwait !” doesn’t tell the story.

It’s been 20 years since Three Kings, Russell’s confident foray into studio film-making after the indie slapsticks Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, stormed into theaters. Since that time, there’s been a bigger, splashier sequel to the Gulf war and a war in Afghanistan, but the rationale for both isn’t much better than the urgent need to ” liberate” a Middle Eastern country that most people couldn’t locate on a map. Both of those wars were premised on a terrorist threat, an answer to an attack that happened almost exactly two years after Three Kings came out, but some of young men and women eligible to enlist in 2019 were only newborns on 9/11. Their rationale for being there indefinitely has become as obscure as the path to victory. No doubt some of them are out there now, considering how night-vision goggles run during the day.

Three Kings uncannily foreseen the mission drift, the refugee crisis and the forever wars that have beset the United Nation since it came out, but eight years after Operation Desert Storm objective, Russell just wanted audiences to know what the hell it was all about. Working from a tale by John Ridley- a whole screenplay, really, which led to an ugly attribution dispute– Russell utilizes a thrilling update on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to smuggle in a sophisticated treatment of the chaos and tragedy that filled the vacuum left by the US at the end of the war. Russell is pulling off two jobs at once here: just as his marauders use the postwar chaos to smuggle $23 m in gold bullion (” No , not the little cubes you put in hot water to attain soup “), his film employs an action-packed heist comedy to smuggle a damning assessment of American foreign policy.

George Clooney in Three Kings. Photograph: Allstar/ Warner Bros

The fun begins with a gem map tucked in the ass of a surrender Iraqi officer. (” Do you think he ate it ?”” No, it wouldn’t come out all perfect like that .”) It doesn’t take long for Troy and his dipstick buddy, Private Conrad Vig( Spike Jonze ), to realize the significance of the find, and two higher-ranking soldiers, Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin( Ice Cube) and press liaison Major Gates( George Clooney ), are let in on the secret. Once they realise the map details a series of bunkers near Kerbala containing stolen Kuwaiti gold, Major Gates devises a plan for them to plunder the loot with a humvee and a commandeered truck, and secure their futures once they get back home.

Gates’s logic is diabolically voiced: the Americans will have no trouble sweeping in and taking the money since Saddam Hussein’s army is currently preoccupied with quashing the resistance. As he explains to his confused comrades, the rebels were encouraged by George Bush to rise up against Saddam, presuming they’d have American support, but when that support evaporated, they were targeted by the Iraqi Republican Guard. When the men witness a mother being executed in the streets of Kerbala, they decide to intervene by escorting a group of dissident refugees to safety across the Iran border, in the hope of salving their consciences while still padding their wallets.

Once the Americans make the decision to help the refugees, Three Kings threatens to become a tale about benevolent first-worlders saving the downtrodden, but Russell has a more sophisticated agenda. What unifies many of the characters in the film- the Americans, the protesters and even members of the Republican Guard- is that they’re ordinary people at the mercy of the powerful and corrupt. At a minimum, they’re all risking their necks in a war zone, but the major Iraqi characters in the film have lost businesses and children, and had their lives permanently uprooted. In perhaps the best scene in the film, an Iraqi captain( Said Taghmaoui) tortures Troy with electric shocks while explaining that American bombs expense him a baby daughter, just like the one Troy awaits to meet when he gets home.” We’re both fathers ,” says Troy sympathetically, to which his interrogator replies,” I’m not a father no more, dude, recollect ?”

Three Kings is a thrilling work of sensory overload, charged up by murderer music cues, alternating scenes of screwball comedy and crushing pathos, and the surreal bits of business that tend to emerge from the fog of war. Skeet-shooting nerf footballs from the back of a humvee, a cow exploded by a landmine, footage of the Rodney King beating piped into purloined Kuwaiti TV sets- nothing seems out of place. In a war this senseless, Russell implies, anything is possible.

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