In Which the Only Action we Saw was on CNN
The Gulf War is one of the odder chapters in the history of the last half of the 20th century. A punctuation to nearly a century of US military conflict that felt more like an ellipses than a period. A final gasp of traditional international Cold War politicking that saw America bumble around the world in the name of “stability,” “western values,” and “freedom.” From the perspective of 1999 it appears even stranger, perhaps the last war the United States would be totally top to bottom involved in. There wasn’t a Cold War to fight any more, and various conflicts around the world were being managed without direct contact from American military forces.
In this way David O. Russell’s war satire Three Kings feels like a cacophonous goodbye to the 20th century world of the US Military, a biting jab at the shrug of a conflict that was Operation Desert Storm, and a piercing look at a foreign policy that is driven more by greed and bloodlust that any pretext of stability and freedom. A nauseous tumble into the moments that occur after a war is supposedly over and the shooting and looting can finally begin in earnest.
The form the film takes is that of a whacked out, post-modern heist comedy. After the official ceasefire has been signed military goons Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) find a treasure map sticking out of the ass of an enemy combatant. Together with the dunderheaded Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) the group follows the clues to find a secret stash of Saddam Hussein’s stolen gold. Along the way being pestered by military higher-ups, Iraqi rebels, and news anchor Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn). This stew of characters than blunder their way across the countryside and wreak more havoc and kill more people than their time in the actual war.
The first thing the film forces upon you is its aggressive and unrelenting style. Russell finds every angle, move, effect, blood splatter, slo-mo, rewind, fast motion, color timing, and stunt possible and drives them all together into a hysterical and violent mash. There’s rarely a second where something isn’t happening. Even slower scenes are punctuated with sudden violence or some extreme colorization (the film famously sent warnings to theaters about how the movie was supposed to look this discombobulated). We zoom into organs being shredded by bullets, and watch as film stutters as it captures fountains of blood. In some ways the look of Three Kings is the summit of music video movie making (even if Russell wasn’t one of the many directors to come out of that world). It’s a wild tonal splash that tries to make its point through presentation.
Our cadre of would be thieves are another piece to the presentation puzzle. When we are introduced to our band of robbers they are nothing more than the most boorish stereotypes of servicemen imaginable. Barlow kills a surrendering enemy right as the ceasefire is declared, Gates is found having sex with a journalist weeks before retirement, Elgin waxes absurdly about religion, and Vig just wants to shoot people and yell slurs. The genesis of their plot to steal Hussein’s gold comes from nowhere but a position of greed. Why go back to your boring day jobs, or even your boring life in the military, when riches await just around the corner. And, hey, what do you know, the whole escapade can be backed up by the force of the military and cloaked beneath the veneer of something like diplomacy.
That cloak is the what Russel aims to shred with Three Kings, re-contextualizing American military exploits since WWII as nothing more than missions to exert influence for the country’s personal gain. When our group of kings roll into a village they unleash wanton destruction upon everyone indiscriminately, without consideration to the people there who supposedly support them. We would rather break down doors and take the money for ourselves and destabilize everything in the process. Only after untold damage is done upon the populace does even the inkling of morality come into play.
The film is oddly bifurcated in this way. The opening half is unrelenting comedy and nihilism. But then our little posse steals the gold and breaks the ceasefire with Iraq (it’s funny because the Americans are willingly destroying diplomacy for their own greed). The resulting escape and firefight suddenly inserts a conscious into the film. For most of the run time Gates is a raging blowhard willing to do anything to get his gold. As they approach their goal Gates espouses some philosophy, “necessity is the most important thing in life.” Before the raid goes wrong, money is that necessity, after the snafu it becomes helping the people caught in the cross hairs.
It happens again when Vig is gunned down in rescue operation to get Barlow out of the hands of Hussein’s men. He dies, but he is given honor in his death. Over this short period he has learned to respect Islamic culture enough to want a traditional burial. On his death bed Elgin, Gates, and Barlow are all sympathetic to his demise, even if his ethical compass has moved barely a click to the good. He was too dumb to live and there is great tragedy in that fact.
This sudden moralism isn’t inherently an issue. Indeed, it can be a good hinge to interrogate the behavior in the opening acts of the film. But Russel doesn’t abandon any of his formal flamboyance when entering more somber territory, and these tones begin to clash. The final act of the movie involves Gates trying his best to save refugees at the threat of a court martial. That doesn’t make a ton of sense considering he was willing to blow throw a group of people mere hours before. It doesn’t help that the film is punctuated by a cheeky, “where are they now” styled epilogue that fully revels in the irreverence of the film’s first half.
Russell is more than capable of landing decent punches in at the expense of the American military and what they represent. There’s an excellent scene late in the film where Barlow is held hostage and his captors ask why the Americans are here. “To promote stability in the region,” Barlow answers. Hussein’s men smirk and shove a CD in his mouth and pour oil down his throat. It’s not subtle, but its bracing and articulate. The Cold War theater of American intervention has mostly been a self serving enterprise.
But Russell is too scattered to make this a totally coherent argument, but even in the wreck of whirling cameras and grabby performances there is still a lot of fun to be had. First you can tell this pre-9/11 because no matter how you slice it: the military looks bad, the politics of George Bush look bad, and the whole use of force in foreign countries looks bad. There are systemic issues beyond the bounds of what these men decide to do. The stylistic fireworks are also enjoyable and still shocking in a world that is inundated with endless images of wartime. Then there’s the throwback element, this is almost a nostalgic film, a reflection of a reflection when war seemed to be permanently in the past and we had to learn to cope with that reality. Oh well. Nothing lasts.
Odds and Ends
- The production of this film was infamously a nightmare. With Russell’s treatment of the cast and crew so terrible that it forced the relatively chill Clooney to punch the director.
- Ice Cube has a great screen presence and it’s a shame he didn’t do more quality work before drowning himself in family comedies.
- If you want to go down a weird rabbit hole look up Bart Simpson related Gulf War paraphernalia, it is a trip.
Next Week: Can you believe it has been 20 years since eXistenZ.