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.

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

2016 #76
John Carpenter | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

There are a good number of well-regarded John Carpenter films I’ve not seen that I could spend my time on, but I chose to expend it on this critically-mauled sci-fi-horror-Western from the first year of the current millennium. But sometimes watching poorly-regarded films pays off, because while Ghosts of Mars is no classic, it is actually pretty entertaining.

Set in a future where Mars has been almost completely terraformed, a group of police officers are dispatched to a remote mining outpost to escort a dangerous prisoner. On arrival they find the town mysteriously deserted, but soon discover the inhabitants have been possessed and basically turned into Reavers (…wait, did Joss Whedon just rip off Ghosts of Mars?!) Holed up in the jail, police and criminals must join forces to fend off their attackers. Yes, it’s basically Assault on Space Precinct 13.

It’s not just the plot that recalls older films: although the film was released in 2001, the quality of the acting, photography, sets, and effects are all like something made 15 years earlier. (In these technical aspects it reminded me a lot of Total Recall, and not just because it’s set on Mars.) It’s almost hard to equate it with other films made around the same time, and maybe that’s part of why it was so poorly received on release: it felt dated. Watched with 15 years distance, however, it’s an Old Film, so it’s as easy to mentally lump it in with stuff made 30 years ago as with stuff made 15 years ago. That doesn’t magically wipe out its other faults, but it does make me think about the level of forgiveness people are willing to apply to films based on extra-filmic knowledge of when they were made, etc. If people thought this had been made in the ’80s, would they view it as kindly as they do some ’80s genre-classics that are just as bad and/or dated?

I mean, I’m not saying it stands up to something like The Thing, which by comparison is a classy movie (bet no one in 1982 ever thought The Thing would get called “classy”!), but I don’t think it’s any less accomplished (at least in technical categories) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China. However, it’s swapped out some of the kooky fun of that film for a sci-fi-horror milieu, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t wash as well — it doesn’t have the comicalness to let the weaker aspects slide.

Conversely, if you made it today it would probably be seen as a throwback/homage and everyone would do backflips over it. They’d have a similar reaction to its diverse cast: a female lead hero, a black co-lead who’s also the cast’s biggest name (at the time), a lesbian commanding officer… If they could manage that in a studio picture 15 years ago, why does it seem to be such a big problem nowadays?

Anyway, it’s not “good”, but it is cheesily fun — and I reckon if it had been made 15 years earlier, exactly as it is, it would have a lot more fans.

3 out of 5

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

2015 #137
John Singleton | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

John Singleton became the first African-American Best Director Oscar nominee, as well as the youngest, for this debut. 23 years on, his story of the lives and troubles of young black men in L.A. remains sadly pertinent.

Unfortunately, the film’s style doesn’t: some parts are plainly constructed and others have dated badly, like the horrible score — bland of-its-time TV soap music, when something befitting the characters (like the hippity-hop tunes that surface occasionally) would seem more appropriate.

Nonetheless, the believable characters, effective storytelling, and authentically new voice (even so temporally removed as we are now) mean it remains powerful filmmaking.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

21 Jump Street (2012)

2015 #62
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

21 Jump StreetHaving turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good story of a machine that makes it rain food into an entertaining and amusing movie, and the unlikely-to-be-any-good concept of a LEGO-centred film into an entertaining and amusing movie, is it any wonder that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller also turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good premise of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a remake of a forgotten ’80s teen TV series about police officers who go undercover in a high school to find drug dealers into an entertaining and amusing movie?

The prime difference from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie lies in the rating: those are kids’ films (with adult-friendly angles), while 21 Jump Street is an out-and-out R. That’s unusual in itself, given the US studios’ obsession with PG-13 and this being set in a high school, but it allows Lord and Miller to push at boundaries; not just being able to be ruder and grosser, but even the whole “teens doing drugs” storyline. They manage to make the extremes funny without descending too far into toilet humour — compare it to A Million Ways to Die in the West, for example, which had its share of clever edginess but undermined it with some terribly crass bits.

Perhaps the film’s best material revolves around the changing face of high school. Tatum and Hill’s characters grew up in an era of the traditional mould, where jocks ruled and nerds were bullied. When they return undercover, the tables have turned: getting good grades and caring about the environment is cool. In a classic bit of role reversal, Shot outthis leaves Hill hanging out with the cool kids — and being lured down the path of parties and their shallower friendship — while Tatum falls in with a gang of ultra-nerdy nerds and starts actually learning stuff. Distilled like that makes it sound pat, but in the film it works; in part because they don’t overplay the clichéd “friends fall out irretrievably… until it’s retrieved for the final act” story arc.

I only watched 21 Jump Street to see what all the fuss was about, expecting to find it unlikeable and unfunny. Happily, I was completely wrong — Lord and Miller win again. Next, they’re working on an animated Spider-Man movie. At the risk of jinxing it, that sounds likely to be quite good…

4 out of 5