Three Kings
Rating -

Comedy/Action/Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 110 Minutes

George Clooney: Archie Gates
Mark Wahlberg: Troy Barlow
Ice Cube: Chief Elgin
Spike Jonze: Conrad Vig
Nora Dunn: Adriana Cruz
Jamie Kennedy: Walter Wogaman

Produced by Bruce Berman; Alan Glazer, Gregory Goodman, Paul Junger Witt, Edward L. McDonnell, John Ridley, Kim Roth, Charles Roven, Douglas Segal and Kelley Smith-Wait; Directed by David O. Russell; Screenwritten by John Ridley and David O. Russell

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Despite being alive during the Persian Gulf war, I, like some other unfortunate members of Generation X, have little clue as to what was involved during those many months American soldiers fought their way into the Middle East. The same questions that have boggled our minds for half a decade seem to go unanswered for more than just American youth, as demonstrated by an NBC anchor in "Three Kings." Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) circles the Iranian desert in search of out-breaking stories, bur her journeys are often dead-ends (for certain but complex reasons). There is a scene in the movie in which her frustration with finding the location of a breaking development backfires, and all of her failures go noticed. "I'm too old, and still don't even know what this war was about," she admits.

But even then, at a point of almost complete self-disappointment, something can still be learned, both for her and for us. In addition to being a rather informative study of the Persian Gulf war, this is also a movie that exhibits the moral dilemmas faced by human beings; the decisions we make, who they are better for, and what they can accomplish internally and for those associated with them. Like Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," it has real human issues, and, in ways, like Quentin Tarrantino's "Pulp Fiction," it thrives on a witty, smart and amusing script that generates both laughter and sorrow.

The story is this: an outpost of American troops find themselves in mighty celebration after a recent cease-fire in the desert of Iran. During sequences of partying, dancing and all-out craziness, soldier Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) and his idol in life, Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) discover a map sticking out of the rear of an Iranian refuge, which reveals the specific hidden locations of millions of dollars worth of stolen bullion (no, not those little cubes you put in hot water to make soup). These gold bars are property of Kuwait, and in greediness, both Troy and Conrad, along with the help of Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Archie Gates (George Clooney), decide to retrieve the stolen goods for their own vanity. Of course, their journey (and their egos) are set off course by a sense of propriety, as they observe crude soldiers treat innocent bystanders like complete and utterly worthless animals. Their mission then shifts from recovering gold to recovering innocent individuals and taking them out of the country. In other words, their ethics come into play.

"Three Kings" has several exhilarating qualities, but none of them come close to matching the film's superb cinematography, which is the best seen in a movie all year. The writers have devised a script that wants to be both an action picture and a drama, but the work behind the camera maintains it. Whereas most action movies are concentrated on loud action sequences and big shoot-outs, this is the first in which the camera stands at point blank when the shots are fired, slows the action down, and rushes over to the targeted victims before the bullets have the opportunity to penetrate their skin. Such shots are fresh and invigorating for a genre like this. I imagine these cinematographers are on their way to receiving Oscar nods.

The ensemble cast is almost equally as terrific. Ice Cube, a man of too many words but humorous remarks, is especially solid, both at maintaining a cool head during dangerous events, and watching over his comrades in any given situation. Mark Wahlberg, who hit it big with "Boogie Nights" and then disappointed with "The Big Hit," does just as well here, playing a successful soldier who wants to get home to his child and wife before anything potentially deadly might happen (and believe me, there are moments when his fate is almost sealed). Ultimately, though, it is George Clooney who becomes redeemed. After being in "Batman & Robin" and the vastly overrated "Out Of Sight," one might have predicted his career on the movie screen to drop out of sight as well. In "Three Kings," there is an instant urge to forgive him for his mistakes (I liked the "Batman & Robin" film, unlike most, but thought its major weakness was Clooney's inability to preserve the true persona of Bruce Wayne). It may just very well push him onto the Hollywood "A" list.

What we have here is not just a surprisingly proficient action picture, but also an enlightening and touching human drama that hits the heart in more ways than one. Anchored by strong performances, a cleverly devised script, educational information on Desert Storm and (most importantly) breathtaking cinematography, "Three Kings" is unlike anything seen all year. Alongside "American Beauty," this is a film that promises much ahead in the remainder of the fall season at the cinema.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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