Film Score: Carter Burwell Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Cliff Curtis
Three Kings is essentially Kelley’s Heroes set during Desert Storm. George Clooney, of course, is Clint Eastwood, but there’s something more to this film than a quest for gold. There’s an underlying morality tale at work that is absent from the earlier film. And I’m still not sure if it makes it better or worse. In some respects there’s an element of bait and switch in the film. It begins as a comedy, almost a farce, and halfway through it turns into something quite different. It’s the difference between a long-range war with bombs and airplanes and casualty lists, and the up-close and personal view of the war from the ground, where innocent men, women, and children are killed for reasons that have nothing to do with them. They were simply in the way when the Americans came through. And who is going to give them the answers? Who are they going to hate? They can’t hate Saddam Hussein because he owns the country, owns the military, and owns their lives. But they can blame the Americans, for asking them to rise up against the dictator and then pulling out when their military objective is achieved, leaving them in the hands of the Iraqi army, reprisals carried out against them to assure that no one will attempt it again. It’s a powerful message with no real answer, especially in light of the war in Iraq that would happen four years later.
The film begins with the end of the Persian Gulf War. Mark Wahlberg ask his fellow soldiers if they are still shooting, and when he can’t get an answer, goes ahead and kills an Arab with his rifle--to the delight of his comrades, but to his dismay. The atmosphere is like a frat party for most of the men. At the same time two female reporters, Nora Dunne and Judy Greer, are competing for what little scraps of newsworthy events they can cover while at the same time the military is not anxious to share much with them at all. Add to that the fact that George Clooney has been assigned to assist Dunne and yet he’s carrying on a sexual relationship with Greer, and the tension between the two escalates even further. The division is ordered to capture more prisoners the following day, and Wahlberg discovers a document on one of them that tells the location of a cache of gold stolen from the Kuwaitis by Saddam Hussein. He takes the map to their commanding officer, Ice Cube, who he knows the location of Saddam’s bunkers. When Nora Dunne hears a rumor about the map, she and Clooney begin asking questions, and after Clooney manages to ditch her he eventually finds it and he and Wahlberg and Ice Cube decide to go after the gold without telling anyone.
They drive up fast to the village and disarm the guards, but while the three are inside the driver is besieged by the people in the village who believe the Americans are there to liberate them. They leave when they are told the bunker has no gold, but Clooney think’s it’s actually hidden in a well and they return to get it. In addition to the gold, however, they also find political prisoner Cliff Curtis and his family. The Iraqi soldiers even help them load the gold, but it’s also clear that they’re going to kill the entire village when they leave and Clooney can’t live with that, so he tries to take the villagers with them. The Iraqi soldiers blow up their trucks and the Americans are seemingly captured, but winds up in an underground village in the dunes. It’s then that Curtis offers to help them transport the gold in exchange for escorting him and the rest of the villagers to the Iranian border. With no other way to move the gold, the men reluctantly agree. While Clooney and Wahlberg are the nominal stars of the picture, Cliff Curtis is the moral center of the film, along with Saïd Taghmaoui who has suffered the same tragedy as Curtis but whose allegiance still resides with Hussein. There are also some nice cross-cultural scenes with Ice Cube, whose character is a Muslim and the hick driver who wants to be buried at one of the Muslim temples. And though filmed in the U.S. and Mexico, many of the Iraqi refugees were also played actual Iraqi refugees.
The producers had originally intended for Clint Eastwood to be offered the lead role, but the decision was ultimately made that a young man was needed and the part was offered first to Nicholas Cage, but eventually given to George Clooney. Like it’s predecessor, the film strives for a comic overtone that is in keeping with the time. In the seventies it was the hippie culture personified in Donald Sutherland’s character. In this film it is the caricature of the army in the Middle East. The men even argue about which specific derogatory terms they are allowed to call the Arabs that they capture. Wahlberg and Ice Cube argue about whether it’s Lexus or Infinity that makes a convertible. The soldiers skeet shoot with Nerf footballs, and a cow even explodes when it accidentally steps on a cluster bomb. Most of the humor comes from the fact that the men react to the bizarre happenings with no surprise at all. The film was made long after the use of digital color manipulation and so it’s odd to actually see a disclaimer at the beginning of the credits to the effect that the filmmakers did this on purpose. Three Kings was writer-director David O. Russell’s most successful film to date, and was released to generally positive reviews by critics. It has continued to gain critical respect through the years and despite its flaws it remains an important film about the first Iraq War.