This is not a question with an easy answer, because Russell has written and directed a nifty little war movie that defies convenient categorization. Based on a story by John Ridley and eighteen months of post-Gulf War research by Russell, this tale of mercenaries and morality summons common expectations of the genre only to skewer them. The criticism leveled lately against a certain veteran director applies equally well here -- that violence and viscera needn't be celebrated graphically to make an effective movie -- but Russell counterbalances his gratuitous wankery with doses of irreverent wit. The result is a war movie less opposed to war than to dull, crusty philosophies. WWII? Been there. Vietnam? Done that. Really, is there anything left to say about nationalist valor or disillusioned rage? Three Kings makes its bid on new ideological turf by giddily dissecting the essence of fighting itself.
Of course, this isn't so much a war story as a politically charged fiction, an adventure set immediately after the Gulf War. It is March 1991, and George Bush's high-tech Desert Storm has left a squadron of American troops restless in the Iraqi desert. Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a divorced and cynical Green Beret who's not above a little slap and tickle to pass the two weeks before his voluntary retirement. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is a resolute Christian, an airport baggage handler whose tour of duty reveals the resiliency of his personal creed. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a new father and doting husband whose patriotism is paralleled by his urge to party. Aided by Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a white-trash caricature who, curiously, idolizes Barlow, the men set off on a quest: Barlow and Vig have discovered a map between the buttocks of a stripped, surrendered Iraqi soldier; Elgin and Gates stumble onto their clandestine meeting, and the four decide to seek a stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion.
"What is the most important thing in life?" Gates asks his subordinates after their treasure hunt's first near miss. They've whetted their appetites for excitement by this point, skeet-shooting Nerf footballs from their speeding Humvee and blasting American classic rock (à la Apocalypse Now -- in this case, The Beach Boys' "I Get Around"). They've met oppressed Iraqi civilians and a few of Saddam Hussein's troops face-to-face, so the complexity of their original back-before-lunch plan is starting to dawn on them. The younger men make their guesses: "Respect?" "Love?" "God's will?" Gates, a pragmatic sort of guy, tells them the answer is necessity. In this case, that means that what is most necessary to Hussein's troops is to put down the civilian uprising. Thus, the temporarily AWOL Americans are free to plunder the booty without interruption.
Or so they think. As Three Kings unfolds, the men find themselves spiraling into complications they never anticipated. Traveling from bunker to village, mosque to minaret, they discover that despite the recent official cease-fire, their self-serving mission may become painful and messy. What starts out as simple Yankee greed quickly escalates into the bloody stuff of battle. Caught between the civilians, who provoke their empathy (and, eventually, their solidarity), and the Iraqi army, who have the sheer nerve to fight back when their posts are invaded, these soldiers of fortune learn a lot more than they bargained for about the culture of the land they've been parking on and bombing.
As a truly surprising breath of fresh air, so do we. While countless standard-issue Hollywood racial slurs are hurled against the Arabs near the beginning of the movie, these serve primarily to illustrate the ignorance of the characters who spout them. Once the smug comfort of their base camp is stripped away, the foreign soldiers start meeting the natives eye-to-eye. For this project, dialects, religious motifs, cultural icons and general behavior were overseen by a team of Iraqi advisors, including Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini (a religious leader), Sermid Al-Sarraf (an attorney) and Al No'mani (an actor and filmmaker). The contributions of these men cannot be underestimated, as many Americans (and American producers) would be all too happy to doom the Iraqis to being this generation's version of the Axis, the "Reds" or "Charlie." By bringing forth subtlety and vast diversity -- not only between the U.S. and Iraq, but within Iraq itself -- these men have made a major contribution to mainstream American cinema.
Acting as a sort of lightning rod for much of this cross-cultural illumination is Amir, the leader of an Iraqi rebellion, played without a wink of irony by native New Zealander Cliff Curtis (The Piano, Insider). Amir, once an entrepreneur, has lost everything to Hussein's army but his daughter and his hope, and once the matter of the gold is sorted out fairly, he joins the heroes for an exodus to freedom. While it is certainly strange for Curtis to be playing a Middle Easterner, his conviction as Amir is beyond reproach.
All the leads bring forth their strengths for Three Kings as well. Clooney is ideal as a gruff Special Forces officer, his features looking all the more chiseled in the harsh desert light. Ice Cube expands his horizons yet again as Chief, the spiritual conscience of the group. (Amazingly, when he blows up a helicopter, he does not follow the explosion with a clever quip! Perhaps we're finally getting somewhere.) Wahlberg is by turns excessively charming and melodramatic, as is his character, so this plays fine. Also, as television news correspondent and five-time Emmy runner-up Adriana Cruz, comedienne Nora Dunn generates enough humor and pathos to keep an entire subplot alive about the role of the media in wartime.
The only unfortunate work here is the acting debut of manic video and commercial director Spike Jonze (soon to release his first feature, Being John Malkovich). While Jonze is energetic and often very funny, the character he inhabits is a moronic cartoon, a stereotypical redneck who may as well be called "Skeeter." He provides ample comic relief, yes, but it's a bit like having Scooby Doo in the battalion.
Distracting us from this exaggeration are Russell's hyper direction (an impressive evolution from Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster); Catherine Hardwicke's grungy production design (her practice on Tank Girl obviously sharpened her for this); Newton Thomas Sigel's feverish cinematography (Fallen and Apt Pupil); and Robert Lambert's bang-bang editing (Above the Law, Sorcerer). Combined, these elements produce a heady brew of bleached and oversaturated desertscapes, cavernous alien dungeons and pulse-popping rhythm. (Those who were disappointed by the sweeter, sillier return to George Lucas's Tatooine in The Phantom Menace may find their funky, dangerous desert fix here.)
It's ultimately futile to compare Three Kings to the genre material on which it riffs. Forget its wannabe side, begging for attention with pyrotechnics. Ignore its ridiculously tidy setup and conclusion. Likening this movie to a new, experimental document is far wiser. Look closely, below the posturing and fireworks; something is twitching down there. Entering a new era of cinematic and cultural potential may not have been Russell's plan, but he's doing it here. Scoping the changing climates around him, he has delivered a touching yet demanding story. Not everyone will notice or appreciate this. Even those who do may not receive the movie's two subliminal suggestions: Exult in the medium's ever-expanding spectrum of emotion, and despair that it takes so much gleeful violence to access sentiments so human.