Three Kings (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
But in the nicest possible way.

Country: USA
Language: English & Arabic
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 3rd March 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

Director
David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

Screenwriter
David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

Story by
John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

The Story
After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

Our Heroes
Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

Our Villains
The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

Best Supporting Character
I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

Memorable Scene
Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

Making of
The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

Awards
1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

What the Critics Said
“[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

Verdict

Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

#91 never… lies dies.

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