Three Kings is set at the moment of victory itself: Saddam has surrendered. American servicemen, their sword of valour never, as it were, tempered in the fire of real combat, are in a strange, volatile mood: relieved, euphorically triumphant, oddly frustrated. It is their uneasy task now to enforce a pax americana, which involves accepting the abject surrender of thousands of Iraqis while encouraging a putative rebel faction to rise up against the Ba’athist regime. All of this, while drifting aimlessly about in the desert landscape fringed with burning wells, and trying to think of ways of keeping the media encampment happy.
The film conflates a number of generic approaches. It sometimes has the acid-trippy, alienated feel of an Apocalypse Now or a Platoon; it sometimes affects the grandstanding, busily appalled humour of M*A*S*H; occasionally it strives for the grandeur associated with the theatre of 1939-45: there is a scene in which a tank mightily turns its barrel on a troublesome sniper that is lifted straight out of Saving Private Ryan.
Exactly how the hell they expect to convert them into exchangeable currency for use back home is not a question that weighs heavily on us. Instead, we enjoy the stylish cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel, and Russell’s very adroit management of both the military set-pieces and the internal tensions of the hero group, which actually includes another renegade American soldier (like The Three Musketeers, there are really four of them) – this is Conrad Vig, a leering good-ol’-boy played by Spike Jonze.
Irony and historical perspective are provided when it sinks into the minds of our heroes that America is, in a sense, the author of this chaos. America had armed and trained Saddam in the days when it took Iraq’s side against Iran; and now it was casually encouraging anti-Saddam rebels to risk everything in an uprising. But the film does not touch on the actual bombing of Baghdad and its cowering civilians – a manoeuvre intended to create these revolutionary conditions – and Three Kings is always careful to indict the political rather than the military establishment. (There are no walk-on roles for blithering British officers, incidentally – though I would have liked to have seen a representation of John Major in the desert wearing his woolly jumper.)
In the midst of all this grisly modernity, what do two soldiers, Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) discover, but an old-fashioned treasure map! Tonnes of hidden Kuwaiti gold bullion liberated by the Iraqis and now begging to be taken by some enterprising Americans. Their map is commandeered by Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) and they set off behind enemy lines to swipe the gleaming yellow bars.
They give appreciably happier performances than Clooney, who appears to have arrived having, in Woody Allen’s time-honoured phrase, just taken his handsome lesson. This film would appear to require George to act up a Desert Storm: he has to be a plausibly embittered, cynical soldier prepared to risk his pension for this crazy, greedy scheme. But, secondly, he must have a streak of pure gold bullion in his heart, and be ready to risk the prize to help his new buddies and, indeed, the Iraqi civilians, while maintaining a manly emotional reticence about just what a fantastic guy he’s being. Needless to say, it’s this second aspect that George is keenest on. And it is clearly a bit of a wrench not to be able to get his stethoscope out at any time.
avid O Russell’s Three Kings is an unexpectedly entertaining film about the most boring event in modern history: the Gulf war. This was a military adventure that is popularly conceived to be a virtual-reality, postwar war – although, unlike the recent Nato action against Serbia, it did involve a quaint ground-troop invasion, and Three Kings finds itself in this more old-fashioned military context.
All around them, in every direction, the level sands stretch vastly away, and this gives everything a weird and faintly surreal air. Russell’s screenplay has a lot of snap. At one stage, Chief Elgin bitterly objects, as an African-American, to other ranks’ use of the phrase “sand-coon” to describe the enemy: ” ‘Towel-head’ and ‘sand-jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes!” Such fastidiousness is a little strange for the former gangsta rapper Ice Cube, but he himself is really quite impressive in this role, and, catching up with Wahlberg, has graduated convincingly to the screen from the world of music.
Three Kings has the lineaments of a wised-up anti-war film, but with an undercurrent of warmly lenient, sentimental admiration for the American fighting man: it makes for a strange flavour, but this is an enjoyable and intelligent action film.