As noted in June, this is the third in a three-part series I am calling The Summer of Surprise. Something about each film I will write about in June, July, and August surprised me in a positive way (and I am toying with the idea of using September for a movie that surprised me in a negative way). The final installment had a lot of things going against it – difficult subject matter, questionable (at the time) leading actors, and one of the worst marketing campaigns I can remember that did very poor job getting people excited about it. Let’s spend a few paragraphs talking about Three Kings (1999, dir. David O. Russell).
Three Kings picks up at the end of the Gulf War. The US armed forces are still in Iraq, but everything is more or less over. Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and PFC Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze – better known for his directing and writing credits, such as Being John Malkovich and Her) come across a map that appears to lead to the location of some Kuwaiti gold that Iraq had stolen. They enlist the help of Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) to figure out a plan when the entire mission is taken over by Major Archie Gates (George Clooney). To quote Gates, “Saddam stole this gold from the Kuwaiti people. I have no problem stealing it from Saddam.” Setting off on this goal, they encounter some resistance fighters and the stakes get escalated as they witness an execution. What follows turns into a story of questionable intentions turning into noble pursuits, cultural appreciation, and the role of the media in military conflicts.
I vividly remember seeing the trailer for this film and not having any clue what they were trying to say or whether this movie was a comedy or a drama or something in between. That confusion, you would think, would have made this a flop, but it somehow succeeded at the box office – pulling in $107 million dollars in 1999. Add to the fact that Clooney was JUST starting to break into starring roles in film – he would not really become the bankable leading man until a few years later when he did The Perfect Storm, O Brother, Where Are Thou?, and Ocean’s Eleven over an 18 month period – and David O. Russell (who would later direct The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle) was not very well known to the average moviegoer. But this film is a fantastic success for the same reason most of Russell’s work is – casting.
Clooney is fantastic and understated as would become his trademark. Wahlberg plays a flawed yet incredibly well-intentioned co-lead. Ice Cube is solid. Jonze is a little weak but the character is kind of a buffoon. The best performance comes from Said Taghmaoui as an Iraqi soldier who interrogates Barlow. The film flows extremely well and gets into some pretty weighty subject matter while probing the reasons for war and what it means to those who are impacted by it long after the fighting is done. Though it somehow manages to do this without ever feeling preachy or insulting its audience. If you can somehow go into this one without any expectations of the type of movie you are going to see, I think you will be better served. If you expect something specific, you could wind up disappointed that you didn’t get it, because this film delivers so many different things…to ask for only one feels wrong.
FUN FACT – If you watch this on DVD or Blu-Ray (I know…what year is it, Dave?), there is a delightful featurette called “An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process…with Ice Cube.” Spike Jonze directed the short and it is well worth a watch if you can find this super outdated form of movie watching.
Just Watch says that Three Kings is not available to stream for free anywhere but is available for rent or purchase all of the major options (AppleTV, Amazon, YouTube, RedBox, etc.).
As a reminder, here is the original post that details the scores and weighting system.