Three Kings is a rather strange film. It’s a raucous
blend of style and substance, borrowing from action films, music videos, medical
school educational films, and yes, even the New Testament (just a wee bit). I
think I heard it best described as "subversive."
The plot, on the surface, seems relatively simple. The Desert
War has just ended, and the American soldiers are celebrating. While bringing in
captured Iraqi soldiers, soldier Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) discovers a map to
a hoard of gold Saddam Hussein stole from Kuwait. After conferring with his
friend, Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), Barlow makes plans to grab a little bit of that
gold himself; they figure, Saddam stole it from Kuwait, why not steal it from
Saddam? But before they can head out, soon-to-retire Special Forces man Archie
Gates (George Clooney) discovers their plan, and threatens his way into their
little group. Along with one of Barlow’s soldiers, a goofy redneck named Conrad
Vig (Spike Jonze), the group heads out to make their fortune.
The gold is discovered rather quickly. But along the way, the
American soldiers become embroiled in the struggle between the Iraqi soldiers
and citizens rebelling against Hussein. It is Clooney’s Gates who is the first
to recognize his duty, even at the expense of avarice, convenience and his own
safety; what was planned as the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme quickly
degenerates into the archetypal flight through the desert, albeit with $23
million in gold tucked away in suitcases.
The performances, for the most part, are nothing spectacular;
nor are they noticeably bad at any point. Clooney still seems to have just one
character that is pulled out of one environment and background and dropped into
another; but it’s a likeable character. Ice Cube’s Elgin is the most religious
of the group, and unfortunately is probably the most static of the three main
characters (well, four actually; Jonze’s Vig is a relatively large part, and he
certainly grows a bit in the course of the film). Wahlberg does a good job as
the soldier just entering manhood as a father, but still young enough to enjoy
partying and to be so unsure as to whether a cease-fire is in effect as to kill
a surrendering Iraqi soldier.
But the plot is indeed subversive. Trying to catch the subtle
nature of the film’s nuances and themes in a single review would be difficult;
it might take something more on the order of an essay.
Many of the subversive elements come out in the weird style of
the film. Brief theoretical vignettes, including one that graphically shows the
effects of a bullet to the stomach and another showing the bombing of a pleasant
American household, throw the viewer off; slow-motion is often employed in
a very bizarre and disturbing manner. Greatly funny gags are placed alongside
grim scenes of torture. It’s almost as if there are two films – a military
action movie with a lot of comedy, and a gritty account of a post-war
"Pardoner’s Tale" gone right – and the film firmly chooses an ending
that befits the former, unfortunately causing the viewer to forget about a lot
of the subversive or thought-provoking aspects of the film.
At the very least, Three Kings is an entertaining film,
and at its best it does a decent and fair job of illustrating how Americans look
to both friends and foes in the Middle East. There is something here to keep
anyone interested, and if you look hard enough, you might find something that
will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.