“Are we shooting?!” are the first words we hear at the top of David O. Russell’s Three Kings, the best film thus far to be set during and about Operation Desert Storm. The soldier shouting this, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), looks back to see his disillusioned—or just plain bored—armed brethren doddering about; one of them is helping the other get sand out of his eye. Barlow has an Iraqi soldier in his crosshairs and, to be safe, shoots and kills him, prompting his “weekend warrior” colleagues to stand around and discuss it as if commenting on a new charcoal grill. Set in the weeks following a February 1991 ceasefire agreement between President Bush and Saddam Hussein, Three Kings proposes that war, even one as odd as the Gulf War, takes little time to drain our bravest of humanism and “morality,” an idea reflected in the dull, empty landscape of cracked earth and sand that cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel creates with Russell.
Lapsed humanism is tough to redeem, but boredom is a bit easier to solve. Back at camp, Barlow gets drunk with his imbecilic Sundance Kid, Conrad (Spike Jonze), tosses around Nerf footballs and dances to Public Enemy and “God Bless the U.S.A.” in a fit of hollow release. It’s not until the next day when Barlow and Conrad pull a treasure map out of a prisoner’s anus that an actual point to the war seems to arise. They share their findings with their superior, Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), but are wrangled by Major Archie Gates, a worn-out, weary, and cynical career soldier who’s introduced mid-coitus with a young, fame-hungry reporter (Judy Greer) and is assigned to accompany an aging, fame-hungry reporter (Nora Dunn); he’s naturally played by George Clooney.
A load of Kuwaiti gold bullion is what is promised at the end of the treasure map and, sparked by the possibility of quitting their reprehensible day jobs and the military, the four soldiers head out to a small town where Hussein hid said gold in a series of bunkers. The soldiers are supercharged—but, then, so are the visuals: Switching to the cross-processing technique, Sigel and Russell make colors pop with distorted brightness and the lighting seems to singe shadows and burn-out the textures of the image. The confusion and adrenaline are palpable as the pack hit the bunkers, finding the gold in a set of Louis Vuitton suitcases and receiving unexpected help from Saddam’s soldiers, who help load the soldiers’ van. The hitch is that the soldiers will turn a blind eye when one of Saddam’s soldiers puts a bullet in a screaming woman’s head, which ends their money-high and sends them into violent overdrive, effectively ending the ceasefire and turning the soldiers into inadvertent peacekeepers.
It’s Archie who puts President Bush’s blithe hypocrisy in easy terms for Conrad: “Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they’d have our support. They don’t. Now they’re getting slaughtered.” In essence, the rebels don’t know who their friends are while the soldiers don’t know who their enemies are. Confusion is Russell’s stock-and-trade and his style extends the characters’ raging beguilement to the audience. Fantasy sequences about wounds filling with bile, cows exploding and an insistent argument over whether or not Lexus makes a convertible are among the more surreal passages, but Russell’s tone remains consistent despite these sudden fluctuations between comedy, drama, and action.
Reshaped by the director from a story by stand-up comedian John Ridley, the film shifts into a more conventional “men on a mission” structure near the film’s final quarter when Barlow gets kidnapped and tortured in a large bunker by a dedicated Hussein soldier (a very good Saïd Taghmaoui), who delivers a riveting diatribe that touches on both Michael Jackson and American isolationism. Outside the bunker, Gates, Elgin, and Conrad have joined up with Amir (the great Cliff Curtis), a rebellion leader who has given them men and weapons in exchange for their help getting across the Iranian border. Here, and in a handful of other moments, Three Kings accepts its inherent entertainment fully, but Russell’s point, his characters’ conviction, and the astounding technical proficiency of the production are never sacrificed, at least not fully.
Some may have imagined Russell spinning a surrealist masterpiece in the guise of a war film—El Topo meets The Dirty Dozen in the sands of Al-Dibdibah. Such a film would be a welcome sight, but Three Kings, like most entertainments, pulls back on the audaciousness of its political and social concepts by ultimately shifting its focus to a somewhat conventional narrative trajectory. Nevertheless, the sort of insight, humor, and visual ingenuity on display in Three Kings is overwhelming and makes a great deal of modern war films look timid, lazy, and one-note. By the end, Barlow has gone from killing a man for no certain reason to giving up his dream of unfettered wealth to ensure the safety of a few people he will never see again. Redemption is indeed a hard road and by never insisting that his characters’ needed it, by keeping them essentially human and conflicted, Russell has made their final sacrifice feel like the only genuine step towards peace perpetrated during the war’s entire tenure. That it’s fictional seems perfectly apropos.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p transfer retains the complex visual schema of David O. Russell and Newton Thomas Sigel created. The biggest flaws stem from the film’s compression from its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio to 2.40:1. There are other flaws, including graininess and light banding, but it’s often hard to tell whether these were intentional through the cross-processing technique or not. Regardless, colors, lighting, blacks, and clarity are all very strong. As wondrously convoluted as the imagery is, the audio trumps it, and here Warner does an excellent job of bringing out the dense auditory menagerie. Balance is everything here and though attention is paid first and foremost to the snappy dialogue, ambient noise and a smattering of pop songs, including the Beach Boys and Chicago, ring out clear as a bell.
The release of Three Kings should serve as a paradigm of how to choose bonus materials and how to discuss a film on a commentary track. Russell’s commentary and, to a lesser extent, producers Charles Roven and Edward L. McDonnell’s commentary track are informative, funny, encompassing, and passionate about a film they obviously all felt deeply about. Even the smaller bonus materials carry more insight than most commentaries: Production designer Catherine Hardwicke’s dissecting of her craft and an interview with cinematographer Sigel about the different techniques used with processing the film are short but extremely informative. Russell’s preproduction diary is more fun than educational, though to be fair, it’s a lot of fun—as is a featurette on the making of the film and a featurette with Ice Cube on preparing and engaging his role. Additional scenes are also included.
A hallucinatory near-masterpiece and one of the best American war films produced in the 1990s, Three Kings soldiers onto Blu-ray with a wholly engrossing visual and audio package.