(David O.Russell, 1999)
David O. Russell's Three Kings is an unashamedly political film. Russell benefitted from several years of hindsight in his treatment of the first Gulf War. He could more or less say what he liked about it, so his film is highly critical of that Bush Government's treatment of Iraqi rebels who rose up against Saddam when it became apparent that he was losing the War. But Russell was savvy in his criticism - he veiled it in a terrific action comedy which felt, at the time, unlike just about anything else anyone was doing. Indeed, watching the film now it looks like a masterpiece of sorts. It has aged extremely well.
In recent years, American cinema has profited handsomely from the collision of Indie creativity with Studio money. Russell is a great example of this faustian phenomenon. His debut, Spanking the Monkey is a sweatily well-observed, pitch black incest comedy, made for not a lot of money. He followed it with the broader Flirting With Disaster for Miramax, but despite the presence of bigger not-quite stars (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni) his work managed to retain some of its independent edge. Its there in the off-centre characterisation, the portrayal of America as a zoo for neurotics of various shades. Three Kings is something else entirely. A mega-budget semi-Blockbuster with some rising stars and the backing of one of the big studios in Warner Bros, it asked a lot of a young Indie director. But it was worthwhile. His film manages to feel like a big action movie with an indie sensibility, a fairly unique beast.
Early on, everything is comic. That first shot of featureless desert horizon punctured by the incongruously surreal vision of a young Iraqi waving a white cloth from atop a small bunker/hill, the helmet of a US soldier in the bottom corner of the frame; sets the tone as just slighty askew. This is not how big studio War movies start. That this movie will be different is only underlined by its first dialogue, beginning an instant later, and shouted across the desert floor, a dunderheaded, repetitious exchange between grunts, part Beckett, part Abbott & Costello.
Russell treats the grunts with a cynical detachment - he likes his heroes, you feel, but he is aware that they are all flawed individuals. His montage of their victory celebration paints them as jingoistic, meathead fratboys, a depiction much of the remainder of the film works hard to balance. Even so, there is something of the Coens in his sensibility, the notion that he feels somewhat superior to his characters and periodically cannot resist patronising them, even sneering at their idiocies. The conversation about "perfectly good substitutes" for racial terms of abuse for Iraqis is a good example. Russell was clever enough to cast likeable actors, however, and his film is structured cunningly so that the action and drama kicks in suddenly, and the audience is dragged along with the narrative's momentum, the heroes abruptly established as such.
The comedy, while it lasts, is a mixture of effects. Russell uses whatever may produce a laugh: slapstick, satire, sight gags and funny dialogue all feature. This is a film which depicts an exploding cow, while also featuring a character mistake bullion for "them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup" and employing a sudden, and frankly, quite brilliant cut to Chicago's "If You Leave Me now" in the tense preamble to an action sequence. Russell makes it all work, and it makes the film feel richer, more electric.
If Three Kings has a direct ancestor, it is Kelly's Heroes, Brian G. Hutton's 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle about a heist by a platoon of GIs in Nazi-controlled Italy. That too was an action-comedy, though it entirely lacked any political dimension and it's action was far tamer than Russell's. He had never directed action before, and as a result those sequences are often sloppy and obviously the work of a director new to this type of material. And yet this inexperience is a boon - the action scenes are entirely lacking in the baggage of a seasoned pro, they seem almost to come without influences. As a result they feel fresh, with more impact and resonance than most action scenes. Russell signals his intentions with the early scene in which Clooney explains how a bullet can cause sepsis and the camera zips into and out of a body like an invisible scalpel, capturing the spurt of bile from a ruptured organ from the inside. Russell takes this violence seriously, it seems, he feels every bullet, and he seems determined to ensure that audiences do too. This pays off later when we see the anatomy of the escalation of the initial gunfight, the camera woozily cutting and panning across the spaces between combatants as a domino effect of thunderous shots and visceral impacts pulses through a town square, leaving men dead. Later on, characters we care about will be shot, even die, and Russell wants us to feel that too, to see the lunacy of it all.
Stylistically, the film is mainly handheld, giving it a jittery immediacy. The colours are washed out, bleached by the desert sun, most obviously in the earlier scenes. This over-exposed look has been much imitated since. Russell also indulges in some strange, almost disturbing frame compositions, and makes a few references to other movies - that first action scene is notable for its self-consciously posed close-ups of Clooney and Ice Cube, filtered light discolouring them, clouds streaming by unnaturally fast overhead. These shots seem like ultra-pop homages to Sergio Leone (which makes sense, given the duel that has just occurred) , and stand out because they are so different to the way the rest of the film is shot. Is Russell underlining that this is the moment priorities changed for these men, or ironically mocking their own possible self-images as bad-ass American fighting men? The way Russell portrays Clooney's character as a cool customer throughout, the latter suggestion seems unlikely. He gives the men credit for following their consciences, the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi villagers snapping them out of their greed and forcing them to intervene. Here he sets the standard so many later Iraq films cling to - he lauds the men on the ground while attacking the politicians. But this is not a simple issue and Russell does not avoid its complexity, either. He makes it clear that these men are conflicted about helping the rebels in the longer term, beyond the initial situation in the town square. Indeed, they are more or less blackmailed into lending aid after their own lives have been saved. Wahlberg's character emerges from a torture-and-lecture session with more empathy for everybody - he is in severe shock - and falls in line with the others, who have all seen the light during their journey. At the end, the Rebels and their safe passage seems more important to the men than the gold. Of course Russell undercuts this with the final hint that even then, some of the gold was looted.
Much of the political context is made explicit in the dialogue. The film has an entire subplot about one Reporter searching for a story amidst a sea of reporters earching for stories, and indeed begins and ends with TV news report footage. As if that was too subtle, a character says "This is a media War" at one point. Clooney refers to "Bush" with a near-visible sneer, and uses him as a figurehead, with great irony, in his speech to rouse rebellion : "God bless America and God bless a free Iraq!" The speech fails, a possible allusion to the co-opting of American patriotism together with Iraqi nationalism. Clooney's superior, played by a brusque Mykelti Williamson, asks him a prescient question when he wonders what the purpose of the War was, if not to dethrone Saddam: "What do you wanna do, occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again?" But the most chilling scenes of political comment are the torture sequences wherein Said Taghmaoui's Captain tortures Wahlberg's frightened grunt for no particular reason. He just seems to want to teach him a lesson. And he does, pouring oil down his throat to ensure he understands the real motivation for the War. Wahlberg's dazed replies to his enquiries: "to maintain the stability of the region" etc, his lack of understanding of why he is there; are perhaps Russell's most pointed comment on his countries role in that conflict.
One of Three Kings other great strengths is obvious in that scene - this is unequivocally a film about the modern world, about how we live now, how things are and will be. American cultural imperialism is a given, so alongside torturing Wahlberg, Taghmaoui wants to discuss Michael Jackson with him, all the while awkwardly - and hilariously - using American slang terms to address him : Bro, Mymainman. His men watch MTV on stolen Kuwaiti televisions and risk their lives for Levis. Everybody has an intimate knowledge of Lexus models and Easy Listening tapes hide in Arab cars. Then there is the casual and brilliant realism of many of the references in Russell's dialogue - his soldiers discuss American Football, cars, religion, are at first awed by the violence they encounter. Ice Cube is a devout Christian, Spike Jonze an ignorant hick ("from a group home"). When Wahlberg rings his wife she asks him if she should apply for a job for him. The leader of the Iraqi rebels was educated in the US. Clooney ends up as a consultant on Hollywood action movies. This density of detail gives the movie texture, allows its narrative to breathe because the characters feel real and lived-in. Again, this makes their eventual loss and peril more affecting, meaning that the climax has a real power to it. Even better, Russell ends with a euphoric little coda, and perhaps the best ever, only-slightly ironic use of U2 in film.