After a rocky start that had some pundits declaring his movie career DOA, "ER" star George Clooney proves his recovery in last year's outstanding "Out of Sight" was no fluke, by making another wise choice.
"Three Kings" is easily the year's best action movie, and one of the best of any genre. Hip, furious, and darkly funny, this film, which has received some notoriety for literally showing the effect of a bullet on the human body, gets its real punch from the force of its moral weight.
Clooney stars as Major Archie Gates, a Special Forces veteran who has been assigned to the Gulf War press poll for his final weeks before retirement. When a trio of enlisted men, Sergeant Troy Barlow ("Marky" Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin, (Ice Cube) and the dim-witted Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) retrieve a map from the lower orifice of an Iraqi soldier, showing the location of Saddam's loot, Gates sees a way to supplement his retirement.
Ditching the pushy anchorwoman assigned to him (Nora Dunn) Gates commandeers a vehicle and the four men dash into the desert after the hidden gold.
But "Three Kings" is much more than "Kelly's Heroes" go to Iraq. This story owes much more to the underrated John Ford masterpiece "Three Godfathers," starring John Wayne as the leader of a trio of bank robbers who sacrificially divert their getaway to care for an abandoned baby they find in the desert.
But along with the gold, Gates and company find a village in the grip of Saddam's terror, as the dictator uses a loophole in the peace agreement to brutally extinguish dissent and keep his grip on power.
The Americans are confronted with a choice. Do they ignore the plight of the villagers, and head out with their ill gotten gains; or do they do their bit to live up to the image of the American soldier as the champion of the oppressed?
Despite the title, "Three Kings" does not have the direct Biblical allusions of the John Ford movie, but it IS a story about redemption; and generates excruciating suspense with a plot in which both the bodies and souls of the main characters are equally in jeopardy. The unpredictability and sharp turns of plot keep us off balance, avoiding the sense of assurance in standard action fare that everything is going to turn out right for the protagonists.
The performances are solid. Clooney strikes just the right note as the weary lifer, who is spoiling for a fight if the cause is right; Ice Cube is toned down from his usual belligerent style as a very religious man (on four month's leave from Detroit) who is next to take to the cause of the villagers, and Wahlberg again proves his big screen value.
However, we could have used a few more clues to the character behind the decisions Gates makes in heat of the moment; and Spike Jonze's character is mainly along for comic relief.
Writer/ director David O. Russell shows not only a real flair for a Tarantino-style mix of blistering wit and horrifying violence; but surprisingly a sense of the best Hollywood tradition as well. His characters undergo similar transformations to those in "Casablanca" or "The Magnificent Seven," though this is all seasoned with a touch "M*A*S*H" irreverence.
Russell's aggressive style with its washed-out cinematography becomes the desert version of the dark grittiness of noirish cinema veritae, giving the story a sense immediacy and reality. This is further enhanced by his sharp script, with telling details of the soldier's daily life, and a firm grasp of the dark political realities of the war's aftermath.
Like "The Sixth Sense," this movie benefits from its writer/director's singular view. "Three Kings" comes to us bearing the gifts of boldness, intelligence, and verve. It deserves a long box office reign.