Three Kings (1999) – David O. Russell

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge David O. Russell’s Three Kings twelve long years after I first saw and loved it and after I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter have happened. In 1999 I was piqued by the idea of an explosive new filmmaker whose big studio debut came bursting with energy but lacked a little polish. Since then it seems Russell has gained the polish but lost the energy. I don’t want to belabor this for too long because surely the bloated Huckabees and pedestrian The Fighter are not Three Kings’ fault but if you would have asked me in 2000 to name you three young filmmakers to keep your eye on, I would have told you Russell, David Gordon Green and Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m reserving some hope for Russell, given up on Green and have been certainly validated with Anderson. What is it with Davids?

I’m happy to say that Three Kings, while not as good as I remember, is still some kind of war movie. It tells the story of Sgt. Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) who along with his puppy dogged admirer Vig (Spike Jonze, the director) and fellow company member Chief (Ice Cube) discover a map to Saddam Hussein’s hidden cache of stolen Kuwaiti gold. It’s the day after peace has been declared in the first Gulf War and led by the cynical and enterprising Maj. Gates (George Clooney), the four of them go off the steal the gold for themselves. The early scenes are perhaps most indicative of the manic energy that Russell commands as the troops go wild in celebration of the peace. The lack of polish is here as well, some of the characterizations of the military are simply too broad. We get a slack-jawed southern dimwit in Jonze’s character do we really need a second one in the idiot played by Jamie Kennedy? The introductiory subtitles are a little too cute as well, plus there’s a subplot with a television journalist played by Nora Dunn that never really gets off the ground or ever feels like anything other than a convenience to the plot. But those are really all the major complaints. It goes for laughs throughout the movie when it would be stronger if it cut some of them but beyond that it’s a taut, atmospheric, stylistic telling of an interesting story with three well-acted characters all with their own, apparent motivations. Boy, if I could write that about every movie I see. The quest for the gold turns complicated, of course, and the foursome, pursuing the gold unbeknownst to the rest of the army, are forced to make difficult moral decisions regarding the Iraqi people whom they went to war in part to help but are now abandoning per American policy. The first half of the movie centers on the search for the gold and glides by with style and punch, the second half in which our hero’s have inherited a group of Iraqi freedom fighter’s quest to reach the Iranian border drags a little but is still effective. A common trap for young filmmakers, Russell at times lacks the confidence to trust his story and not fall on unnecessary stylistic flourishes, a few slow motion moments go a long way and I tired of the unceasing jazz drums throughout the soundtrack.

The acting is uniformly strong but special kudos have to be given to the two leads, Clooney and Walhberg, who are perfectly suited for Russell’s script. I would imagine there was an awful temptation to go a little broader with the material but Clooney is the consummate under actor so that his delivery often saves clunky or inappropriate dialogue. More so, though no one would call Walhberg a subtle thespian, nobody is as earnest on screen and when he has a funny bit he can sell it beautifully. There are a lot of silly diversions in Three Kings, none sillier than when Walhberg is being tortured and the conversation between him and his captor falls upon Michael Jackson. Walhberg is smart enough to know that while the situation is ridiculous, his character can’t be and he can have you believing that he is as interested in getting out of the predicament as he is in discussing the King of Pop. Walhberg brings this intensity to everything he does and when he’s paired with an intelligent script he’s positively mesmerizing. He acts with absolutely no self-awareness so when a movie like Shooter or Max Payne or any number of other dim action pictures he’s appeared in doesn’t have any self-awareness either, it can collapse. Here he’s terrific. Three Kings is a terrific movie. Whether the man who made it still exists somewhere in the man who made a tonal mess like I Heart Huckabees or a by the numbers snoozer like The Fighter I don’t know but he should watch Three Kings again to get inspired, I’m glad I did.

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