I thought "Three Kings" was going to bomb (pun only intended if it makes me seem witty). The last time we saw George Clooney in fatigues was in "The Peacemaker" -- a film that failed in ways that were previously deemed theoretical. Only movies produced under strict scientific conditions can suck that much. When I heard that George was enlisting for a second tour of duty with "Kings" I envisioned another epic piece of crap.
My initial reaction was supported by the commercials for "Kings." The ads played this movie as a comedy, a drama, a war epic and an action adventure. It's "Saving Private Ryan" and "Stripes" rolled into one! Typically, when an ad campaign can't focus on one aspect of a film, the movie has already been sentenced to a nasty death ("For Love of the Game" is a recent example). Combine Clooney's track record with a misguided movie and you've got another bomb George can add to his resume.
But the very things I thought would kill "Kings" turned out to be its strongest assets. Clooney has finally learned to act within his niche and writer/director David O. Russell has made a movie that's funny, dramatic, poignant, violent and intelligent.
I stand corrected on all counts and I will now to tell you why "Three Kings" is a movie you should see.
Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube are billed as this film's stars, but its true star is Russell. His screenplay uses war movies as a foundation, but he promptly discards the cliches that plague films about grit and honor.
Set in March, 1991, the film follows four Desert Storm soldiers -- Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (Clooney), Sergeant Troy Barlow (Wahlberg), Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) -- as they embark on a treasure hunt to claim a stash of Kuwaiti gold the Iraqis have hidden in a bunker.
A typical "heist" film would use the first hour to focus on the quest for the loot (and the hilarity that ensues) and the second hour would introduce the ethical issues that the group tries to ignore, but ultimately caves in to. "Three Kings" spits on convention. Yes, ethical and humanitarian issues arise, and yes, the soldiers have trouble accepting these issues, but it's not as clean cut as you'd think. I never knew where the plot was going. Would they live? Would they do the right thing? Would they successfully claim the gold and find a clever way to capitalize? None of these questions were answered until the final moments.
Russel's directorial chops are also on display. Often, directors will mix film stocks and play with visual tricks so they'll have an air of "artistic genius" (Yes, Oliver Stone, I'm talking about YOU). These fancy movies always look pretty, but there's rarely any point to all the gloss. "Kings" successfully avoids the artistic black hole, using visual and audio tricks to move the story forward. During most of the desert scenes, Russell uses a bleached film stock that enhances contrast and gives off a glare that captures the white light from a hot sun. Don't worry, "Kings" is still comfortable on the eyes -- the artistic flourishes simply remind you you're in the desert.
Perhaps the screenplay inspired the actors, or maybe some were looking for redemption, but whatever the catalyst, many of the major players come through with performances that could be the best of their careers. Clooney stays within his limited range, which was a fine move because it lets Wahlberg tackle the more emotional elements. The man who used to be Marky Mark notches another acting victory with this role. Ice Cube shows that "Boyz N the Hood" wasn't a fluke and Jonez (director of the upcoming "Being John Malkovich") pulls off an acting coup by playing a sometimes-offensive character who also has a naive charm. "Saturday Night Live" alum Nora Dunn plays a do-anything-for-the-story journalist with such vigor, it may signal the beginning of her new career as a scene-stealing character actor.
Unlike many films that portray Arabs as a single, undefined group, "Kings" shows depth in both the pro-Saddam Iraqis and the regular Iraqi citizens who were caught in a battle they didn't instigate. Russell deserves credit for crafting a film that shows more than one side of a story.
My only criticism is that the film drags in the middle and it takes a while for it to regain its foothold. Stick with "Kings" -- the final 45 minutes pushes this unconvential gem over the top.
Filmfodder Grade: A
Note: This review originally appeared at Ontap.com. It's reprinted here for archival purposes.