Set during the Persian Gulf War, Three Kings begins in March 1991, just as the official cease-fire is announced. The soldiers at an American base camp in Iraq ring in the good news by boozing and whooping it up, but the spectacle has its ludicrous side: These ground troops, after all, have been cooling their heels for weeks while the war has been fought mostly from the air, high-tech-style. They're celebrating a triumph they didn't really contribute to as combatants, and, as soon becomes clear, the triumph is equivocal at best.
Writer-director David O. Russell piles on the ironies and sick jokes: We are reminded that many of the Iraqis fighting the Americans were trained earlier by the CIA to fight Iran; the battles being fought rack up predominantly civilian and not military casualties; beleaguered, defenseless Kuwait is chockablock with cell phones and Rolls-Royces, which the Iraqis regard as spoils of war. Iraqi rebels looking to George Bush for aid in ousting Saddam instead find themselves twisting in the wind.
Russell works on our nerve endings, seemingly intent on outdoing The Road Warrior. With his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, he's devised a bleached-out look for the film, especially in its early sections, that has a corrosive effect on our eyeballs; no beauty is allowed to filter into the flat Iraqi desert terrain, or into anywhere else, either. Russell throws in shock cuts and heads exploded by gunfire and close-ups of a wounded soldier's infected innards; he wants us to know that war -- even an apparently absurdist war such as this one -- is hell.
The action is carried forward by the film's four main protagonists -- Special Forces captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), a square-jawed cynic who's set to retire into civilianhood in a few weeks; Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), with a wife and newborn baby back in Detroit; Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), an airport baggage handler when not on active duty who believes Jesus protects him in the field; and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a southern hick who didn't have a day job back home and looks up to Barlow. When a map to the hiding place of millions in gold bullion stolen from the Kuwaitis by Saddam is literally fished out of a prisoner's ass, these four, led by Gates, go awol to make the score, leaving camp at dusk and planning to be back by lunch. Predictably, things foul up, and they quickly become what Gates, especially, never intended: rescuers of Iraqi villagers set upon by their own troops.
Whacked-out and hyperkinetic as Russell tries to be, he still opts in the end for the most timeworn cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold clichés. Gates, for example, makes a big show early on of sticking up for No. 1, but his transformation into putty-tat is pretty pro forma. We're meant to recognize how the wigginess of the war maneuvers all four men into being the unlikeliest of heroes.
But since Russell never really allows us to develop a closeness to these men, it's difficult to get worked up about their exploits, even though they're onscreen practically nonstop and we see them get shot and tortured. After a while, except for Clooney, who's entertainingly hale, they blend into the blasted, arid landscapes teeming with insurgents and predators. Russell is caught in a conceptual bind that he never really figures his way out of: how to make an anti-heroic war movie with real heroes. His solution, in effect, is to have it both ways: He avoids standard-issue movie-star iconography but, storywise, makes a beeline for bleeding-heart humanitarianism. And so the film, charged-up and smart as it often is, comes across as something of a con. Russell isn't just dramatizing the facts and the disgraces of the Gulf War but also using the war as a way to jazz up his own hokum. (In a stylistically very different way, this is what Terrence Malick did to World War II in The Thin Red Line, which aestheticized combat into a graduate-level course in metaphysics.) Hokum works best when it's presented unjazzed, like Rick in Casablanca coming down with a last-minute case of good-guy-itis.
One reason you can tell that Russell isn't functioning as an enraged, politically committed artist is that the violence in the movie doesn't deepen our responses to the people who are suffering it; the film begins with a head-exploding splat, and the splats that follow are mostly more of the same except bigger and louder. Are the adrenaline-rush stylistics and the hip attitudinizing in this film -- its mix of snicker and slobber -- a "cool" new-style response to war? Movies about World War II and Vietnam have been straightforward or hallucinatory, political or apolitical, but rarely have they seemed as flip or as flashy as this one. Even M*A*S*H, which was set in Korea, kept its high jinks rooted in gallantry; Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland could roust the military brass because they were great surgeons and they saved lives. Unlike Vietnam or Korea or World War II, the Gulf War is the first full-scale American conflict that the majority of today's moviegoing audience actually lived through; and it was, for them, a remote-control war, a video-game war. Not coincidentally, perhaps, there's something remote-controlled and rock-video-ish about Three Kings, and that may be enough to turn it into a hit.
The Gulf War was billed in this country as the exorcism of Vietnam -- a point duly noted in Three Kings -- but the Vietnam War didn't carry much meaning to the generation born after it. The Gulf War probably doesn't carry much jingoistic meaning for that generation either, especially since Saddam is still in power. (That fact gives the soldiers' exploits in Three Kings an existential kick.) Maybe the war would have meant more to people if they actually saw its human toll. But the real suffering that transpired in the Persian Gulf was mostly kept away from American audiences, at least on television. On CNN, the buildings and enemy installations that were hit seemed devoid of actual inhabitants; the wipeouts of civilians were played down. There's a great war movie to be made about the ways in which war itself has become an abstraction in the modern media consciousness, and judging from the best moments in Three Kings, I think Russell understood that. But ultimately, instead of drawing us in, his swagger and the dazzle of his pyrotechnics keep us at a remove from the savagery. They become abstractions, too.