Three Kings [8/10]

USA 1999, dir. David O. Russell, stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg

Who would have suspected that a Gulf War movie with George Clooney would turn out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year? You’d never guess it from the trailer or the posters, but this is an arthouse war movie, filmed in a giddily original style that, for the first ten minutes or so, may leave you breathless. Weirdly bleached-out cinematography, rapidfire editing, excellent use of music, slow motion, fast motion, freeze frame – director Russell deploys all these tricks and many more besides to elevate a simple story – post Desert Storm, a quartet of US Army reservists hatch a plan to steal the gold Saddam stole from the Kuwaitis – into a thrilling cinematic experience.

Much has been made of the fact that this is a rare US war movie that actually questions US government policy, but it isn’t the script that makes Three Kings special. In fact, the film’s level of political analysis wouldn’t seem remarkable in any context except that of American war pictures. By the end, it becomes disappointingly predictable and sentimental, and whatever comparisons the first hour or so may have warranted with Altman’s M*A*S*H or Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are probably best forgotten.

But just because David O Russell has his limitations as a screenwriter, that doesn’t make him any less of a director. Previously responsible for the small-scale family comedy-dramas Flirting With Disaster and Spanking The Monkey, he emerges here as a startling talent, bringing out the best from principals George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube (who gives the film’s most subtle and effective performance) and Spike Jonze. That there are four soldiers involved in the heist plot, despite what the title might imply, is typical of the movie. Leave your expectations at the popcorn stand in the foyer – Three Kings will knock you sideways.

Neil Young
3rd March, 2000

6th December 1999, Cinedome, Las Vegas, NV
29th January 2000, Odeon, Leicester, UK
3rd April 2000, Regent, Redcar, UK