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T h r e e   K i n g s


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By Andrew O'Hehir

Oct. 1, 1999 | Bursting with energy and style it can barely contain (and sometimes can't), David O. Russell's Desert Storm caper flick "Three Kings" is one of the most exciting Hollywood action films in years, and the best Vietnam movie since "Apocalypse Now." Sure, Russell's film is supposed to be set in Iraq just after the Gulf War has ended, but that's mostly a question of replacing jungle locations with deserts and dressing those Third World extras in some new costumes. In "Three Kings," war is a surreal, almost hallucinatory state, fueled by a classic-rock soundtrack. The U.S. government is a sinister and untrustworthy force, betraying both its own soldiers and the people they're supposedly fighting for. Amid this moral anarchy, America's fighting men -- decent guys who thought they were doing the right thing -- must sort out the racial and social divisions they brought with them from home and depend on each other and their consciences, in the lonely tradition of existential heroes.

This may be a perfectly legitimate template for understanding the Gulf War, or American military history in general, but it's a worldview conditioned and perhaps created by Vietnam. Russell, who directed "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster," would have been about 13 when the U.S. war in Southeast Asia ended, so his memories of the Vietnam era were probably created in large part by Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone. Army Special Forces officer Archie Gates (George Clooney), with his hipster shades and Hefner-esque demeanor, is a classic soul-searching Yank from a 'Nam film. When we meet Archie, he's looking around at the devastation in the desert and asking rhetorically, "I don't even know what we did here -- can you tell me what we did here?" Maybe Russell is trying to supply an antidote to all the gasbag WWII nostalgia of the last few years by reminding us that America's more recent wars don't have convenient moral excuses and can't be so easily sugarcoated.

Three Kings
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze and Nora Dunn


Early in "Three Kings," TV journalist Adrianna Cruz (Nora Dunn) tries to get a rowdy party of celebrating GIs to discuss whether the victory over Iraq means that America has now exorcised the "Vietnam syndrome." They're not interested, and probably don't even know what she's talking about. But Russell (who also wrote the screenplay, from a story by John Ridley) is betting that we do. Even the aspects of his filmmaking technique likely to strike younger viewers as totally contemporary -- his careening, ground-level, point-of-view shots; his oversaturated Ektachrome colors and trippy, swirling backgrounds; the sudden slowdowns and speed-ups; the moment when we enter a soldier's internal organs to witness the damage caused by a bullet -- are redolent of the '70s. If there's a lot of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino in Russell's work here, there are also heavy, acid-laden hits of Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell.

Ultimately, I think "Three Kings" tries to be too many movies at once. It wants to combine the idealism of "Casablanca," the cynicism of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and the antiwar outrage of "Full Metal Jacket," all while being a heroic American-guy film and a critique of consumer culture. (As one renegade soldier puts it, the treasures he hopes to loot from Saddam Hussein's secret bunker include "Picasso, Sony, Armani and Rolex.") But even when "Three Kings" loses its focus and shape, its irresistible brio will keep you watching, and wondering what in hell will happen next. Here's a '70s flashback I can get excited about: Russell steps forward here to join other young filmmakers, including the Wachowski brothers ("The Matrix") and Wes Anderson ("Rushmore"), who seem ready to bring some eccentricity and individual vision back to Hollywood.

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