Sunday, January 15, 2012

CRACKER? Three Kings


      “Three Kings” is a war movie released in 1999. It was written and directed by David Russell from a story idea by comedian John Ridley. The movie was a moderate success at the box office, but was critically acclaimed. At the time of filming, George Clooney was a TV star hoping to make a splash in movies. He worked hard to get the reluctant Russell to cast him. Spike Jonze made his acting debut in the film. The movie is set in March, 1991 – “the war has just ended’. This is a reference to the Persian Gulf War.

is this dude surrendering?
      The movie opens with a provocative scene in which a soldier named Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) shoots an Iraqi soldier who may or may not have been trying to surrender. This was a common situation at the end of the war. The scene shifts to the celebration back at base camp. The movie is outstanding in showing the chaos at the end of the war.

Gates, Barlow, and Elgin
      During the searching of Iraqi prisoners, Vig (Spike Jonze) finds a paper stuffed in a prisoner’s anus. “I didn’t join the Army to pull paper out of people’s asses.” He also didn’t join the Army to become a millionaire, but the paper is a map to a bunker where Saddam Hussein has stashed millions in gold bars. When Major Gates (Clooney) gets wind of the map, he takes charge of the trio of Barlow, Vig, and Elgin (Ice Cube) and they go off in a humvee to get rich quick. Surprise – complications arise.

      They find the gold, but they also encounter civilians being threatened by Hussein’s loyalists. The civilians are part of the rebellion against Hussein that was encouraged by the Bush Administration. Our heroes are only interested in the gold so they simply watch while the civilians are killed. Just kidding. Russell is not breaking new ground here. The quartet intervenes in a wild firefight that is one of the coolest ever filmed. The use of slo-mo and graphic visuals of bullets entering bodies is visceral. The battle is not depicted as a fireworks extravaganze, but more like a multi-player tennis match.

Vigs isn't giving up his gold
      They flee with the civilians, but the enemy fire chemicals which turn out to be tear gas. Their vehicle crashes in a minefield. Don’t you hate when that happens? Actually, it was probably common in Iraq back then. They are rescued by rebels, but Barlow is captured. The rebels are angry that Bush has abandoned them. (There is some time compression here as this stage of the rebellion would not have been reached this early.) Gates makes a deal with the rebels. If they help him rescue Barlow, the Americans will help them cross the border into Iran safely.

Gates negotiates
      Meanwhile, Barlow is being “interrogated” by an Iraqi soldier named Said (Said Taghmaoui) who lost his son to an American bomb. He is not a big fan of the U.S.A. He uses electric shock to show it. They debate the war and Said has some good debating points in his favor. When Barlow points out that the war was fought to stabilize the world, Said’s counterargument involves making Barlow drink oil. “This is your f****** stability.” Well played, Said.

      The plan to rescue Barlow revolves around making the Iraqi captors believe Hussein is coming in person and boy is he pissed. Since the Iraqi soldiers are Iraqi soldiers, they fall for this and most run off. Unfortunately, an Iraqi helicopter arrives to change the equation. (This is a reference to how Hussein used helicopters to put down the Iraqi rebellion due to the fact that the Bush Administration did not cover non-fixed wing aircraft in its no fly ban.) Too bad the insurgents did not have explosive Nerf footballs like Elgin uses on the helicopter. Why did the U.S. encourage the rebellion and then not provide the explosive Nerf footballs? What kind of foreign policy is that?!

       Barlow is rescued and in a “you had the better argument” recognition lets Said go. The quartet (minus one) get some trucks and head for the border with the rebel families. Unfortunately, at the border the Iraqis are not allowing anyone to enter Iran and Gates’ commanding officer arrives in a court-martialing mood. Luckily, being an American, he might be open to a bribe of golden bars. It’s redemption time for our scheming rogues.

       “Three Kings” takes an historical event (the Iraqi uprising after the Persian Gulf War) and injects a fictitious story into that chaos. When the Persian Gulf War ended with Hussein still in power, the Bush Administration encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up. The Shia in the South took up the call and at first were successful. Unfortunately, the war ended with the Iraqi Republican Guard crippled, but not powerless. It was able to carry out Hussein’s orders to ruthlessly put down the rebellion because fighting lightly armed civilians was more its skill set than combating the U.S. Army. To make matters worse, the peace agreement did not forbid the use of helicopters. An oversight that was to bring disaster to the insurgents.

a bullet trail
       The movie is very entertaining. It came out after “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” and joined them in juicing up the war movie genre for modern audiences.   It is different and more unorthodox than those other films. It is the MTV version of war. The use of hand-held cameras and Steadicams gives it a journalistic feel. It also uses CSI-style graphics to show the effects of bullet wounds. There is one remarkable view of a bullet penetrating a body and the resulting sepsis. This style reappears when Gates plunges a needle into Barlow’s lung to help him breath. Another scene uses Matrix type visuals to portray a firefight. It’s a war movie for the new generation, but my generation can admire the viscerality of it.  Speaking of generations, "Three Kings" is the modern equivalent of "Kelly's Heroes".

      The movie is not just eye candy. The acting is stellar from the ensemble. Even the novice Jonze holds his own. Clooney’s charismatic performance conclusively proves that his decision to jump from TV was a wise one. Wahlberg cemented his status as a major star. More importantly, the screenplay is thought-provoking. It does not preach, but makes it clear that the period at the end of the Persian Gulf War was a messed up situation and the U.S. should not be proud of our role in the Iraqi Insurrection. It even includes a sympathetic Iraqi torturer (Said). In some ways it is a biting satire of the military and the media. Although the bigger picture is conveyed, the movie dwells at the human interest level. It depicts how government decisions affect civilians.

Carcker? Absolutely. Possibly in the Top Ten.


the trailer


  1. I really agree, it should be at least in my Top 20. It's excellent and original.
    I need to re-watch it to review it. I'm already looking forward to that.

  2. I thought you would like it. It's pretty good for a recent American movie, don't you think? How about the accents?


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