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Three Kings

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If World War II movies are about old-fashioned things like courage and valor, it makes sense that a film about the Persian Gulf War would be about ’90s values like media coverage and greed.

Such is “Three Kings,” a film in which four U.S. Army men use their down time just after the war ends to go hunting for gold bullion Iraq stole from Kuwait. They reason that since Saddam stole it from the Kuwaitis, they can steal it from Saddam and be millionaires.

Plans go awry, though, and a simple plan in which no shots were to be fired winds up all full of shots fired.

The film tries very hard to be “about” something. Much ado is made over nearly every bullet fired, and which person, which individual human being, gets hit by it — the antithesis of “Saving Private Ryan,” where people were mowed down by the hundreds and the point was to show the massive (not individual) horrors of war.

Yet at the same time, “Three Kings” seems to emulate Spielberg’s movie, using that jittery cinematography, and even nearly copying the point-of-view audio effect used to show what a man’s hearing is like after he’s been shot.

There are some non-borrowed techniques that work well, too, though. Director David O. Russell (who also scripted) stages an excellent scene in which several shots are fired, and each bullet is followed to its destination. Imagined or hypothetical events — “How would you feel if your child were killed by a bomb?” — are often shown to us, often humorously, sometimes meaningfully.

It makes for a cool-looking film, but what’s the point of it all? In the end, the four soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) have their plans diverted. Altruism comes in to play, and they find they are bound by “soldier’s honor” to help a group of Iraqi citizens flee the country. Thanks to the live news coverage by a brassy CNN-type reporter (Nora Dunn) who follows them practically everywhere, they are honorably discharged instead of being court martialed for breaking all the rules they did. In short, they change their course of action out of necessity, not because they’ve had a change of heart or learned something. They learn nothing: These are static characters, except for the one who dies. Kind of cynical, really — but maybe that’s what a ’90s film about a ’90s war should be.

B- (1 hr. 54 min.; R, graphic war violence, language and some sexuality.)

In 1999, I reevaluated this movie for Film.com.

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