Blu-ray Review: Three Kings (1999)

Now Available to Own

“Are we shooting people or what?” The sheer confusion and utter insanity of war embodied in the sardonic query posed by first class Army Reserve Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), which opens David O. Russell's screwball soldier boy heist movie immediately sets the tone of what's to come.

It's a pitch-perfect first line of dialogue in a year of enviably brilliant screenplays from American Beauty to Magnolia to Being John Malkovich and in 1999's prolific year where creative, thought-provoking masterpieces were pouring into the multiplex like rain in Seattle, the fact that we can instantly recall those words eleven years later speaks volumes.

Nonetheless, at the same time, we were overwhelmed and damn near spoiled by theatrical greatness the likes we haven't seen very often in recent years of titles that we usually randomly wind up adding to our Top 10 list largely by lack of suitable options. Thus, it's unfortunate that aside from critical praise including earning a major champion in Roger Ebert, Three Kings didn't receive the attention it deserved in a crowded twelve months of unforgettable pictures.

While overall the year belonged to Sam Mendes and Alan Ball's equally sardonic, satirical Beauty, ironically Kings was eclipsed in the arty scene by the efforts of one of the film's stars – Spike Jonze's own instant cult favorite Being John Malkovich.

And after American soldiers returned to Iraq following the horrific attacks of 9/11, Warner Brothers' acclaimed Kings began drawing a new wave of interest from fans. Particularly, it attracted those looking to address parallels in the both wars in tandem with the fact that both conflicts were overseen by presidents from the same family as well as the increasing concern that like the Gulf War, we were predominantly fighting for oil as addressed in Kings.

Yet because of sensitivity and controversy surrounding the situation, it seemed that the thing we needed more than anything in order to step back and really look closer (to use a lesson from Mendes' Beauty) with regard to Russell's Kings was time, making this recent Blu-ray release one of extraordinary pre-election urgency.

Honestly, this is particularly vital in assessing not just the confusion, overwhelming complexities and acknowledgment that nothing is black and white but to a larger extent in understanding just how eerie it is in retrospect to dissect the way that history just keeps repeating itself whether or not “we're shooting people or what.”

And although it's not bashful about its politics, Russell's movie works well on a number of levels, best perhaps as first and foremost an old-fashioned '60s testosterone fueled male camaraderie outsider picture of men on a mission.

But instead of presenting us with a Kelly's Heroes ensemble consisting of a Dirty Dozen or Magnificent Seven large number, we tag along with a small group of soldiers played by George Clooney's embittered nearly retired Major, Wahlberg's Troy and his friend Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) along with Troy's sycophantic sidekick Conrad (Jonze).

The core trio comprise the eponymous three kings, in an admittedly less than religious but extremely witty interpretation of the tale in reverse as unlike their namesake's role of bearing gifts after traveling afar, their intent is to take ill-gotten goods back for themselves in the form of Saddam Hussein's stolen Kuwaiti gold.

In addition to the Kubrickian Strangelove infused larger than life situations where messages masquerade as humor, Russell manages to satirize the media, most specifically via actress Nora Dunn's thinly disguised take on Christiane Amanpour, whose career at CNN you may recall was solidified for her Gulf War coverage.

To push this agenda of the filter of news coverage even further on a stylistic, subtle level, the look of the film is incredibly surreal as Kings' team bleached the film stock, thereby desaturating color in order to bring the war home to viewers the way that we first saw it in newsprint to trippy effect.

Piecing together different elements in a genre blending quilt of madness and freewheeling creativity, what begins as an adventurous buddy comedy morphs into something much more humanistic and troubling. Since they are after all supposed to be heroic, predictably the men's pursuit of stolen fortune is usurped by the reality of the “New Iraq” following the conclusion of the war as the American soldiers aren't able to take up arms against Saddam's loyal fighters who kill innocents in cold blood before their eyes.

Ultimately, they face a tough moral decision of whether or not to get involved without the government say-so because as both human beings and soldiers they just can't witness such atrocities without response. However, around this point, Kings begins to grow slightly incredulous as it moves from a smaller scale war film into something resembling a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western in the vein of the Kurosawa remake A Fistful of Dollars in yet another example of Russell's growing tapestry of genre interplay.

Nonetheless, ultimately its temporary loss of focus and direction in the last act is forgiven by the overall visceral impact of the work when the credits roll. Impossible to pin down, Kings is a towering achievement and the type of film that the abysmal, pointless Clooney vehicle The Men Who Stare at Goats proved cannot be duplicated.

However, given Russell's fascination with visualizing the damage a bullet causes on the inside of the body rather than through fake blood on the outside, Kings is not a film for the squeamish or to be watched while dining. But just like the insanity of wondering whether or not to fire a gun from the start, these explosive sequences are vital to illuminate what really goes on after the squeeze of a trigger.

Although his disagreement and fights with the director were widely publicized and debated in the media, Kings boasts a tremendous breakout performance by Clooney whose turn in the film solidified his potential as a leading man on the big screen as opposed to just his small screen work on TV's E.R..

And fortunately, the movie shines in an exceptional Blu-ray transfer wherein the explosive high definition sound rockets through all of your home theatre speakers and likewise ensures that you won't miss Russell's incredibly penned memorable lines. For the time has never been better to take another trip through Russell's royally twisted Kings to appreciate the genius hidden like Saddam's gold under the facade of a war-torn buddy heist action dramady.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.