Reasons I Love Three Kings (1999)

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(These are all reasons that other people seemed to hate it):

– The filmmaking itself is obnoxious and in your face. I loved its kinetic energy. I loved its bombast. I loved the sheer obnoxiousness of it (closeup inside someone’s body with the stomach filling up with bile. Awesome).

– The script has a wit to it (“Can you let me look at my Iraqi ass map, please?”) that is smart-alecky and too-cool-for-you, but it helps you know you’re not looking at something that is supposed to be realistic. This is all about movie stars play-acting as soldiers. It should be enjoyed on that level. The details in the script (the Infinity convertible argument, the ring of Jesus fire, the quiet discussion about what they should call Arabs because “dune coon” is offensive – “Towel head is a perfectly acceptable substitute”) help give it a snarky feel, which, again, saves it from being over-serious (or, hell, serious at all).

– This is right around when George Clooney started finding his legs as a movie star. He had become famous on ER, but that brand of emotionally-distant hot guy won’t get you too far in a long-lasting movie career. His earlier movies were not good – because he was cast as a leading man. Obviously, he was pegged that way because of his looks. What else is he gonna play? Goofy character-actor parts? But Clooney is darker than most leading men, he’s un-gettable, truly un-gettable – and so I never bought him in straight romances. He seemed embarrassed for himself. He’s not earnest. He doesn’t do earnest well (although, when roused, he can do righteous anger. But that’s different from earnest.) Right before Three Kings, he did Out of Sight, a surprise hit, directed by Steven Soderbergh (his collaboration with Clooney is now long-lasting) which capitalized on that Clooney THING that we all now know so well. Then came Three Kings, then came O Brother Where Art Thou, and suddenly, Clooney had a whole different kind of career. He took charge of it, it seems like. No more would he be lovey-gooey with another huge female movie star. He would be subordinate to no one. From now on, he would stand slightly apart – as he should. That’s his thing, his true essence. Three Kings is an ensemble drama, this is not a Clooney vehicle, but you can see here, in his Special Forces guy Archie Gates that he is having fun with his persona (even though the shoot was notoriously un-fun – I don’t think anyone has fun on a David O. Russell picture – just ask LIly Tomlin) – but Clooney here squints at the camera, growls, makes tough choices under fire, puts on his mirrored sunglasses, and it all borders on camp. This is perfect. Just right. Exactly what the picture needs, and also what Clooney needed in his career. There is an element of camp to the Clooney persona, the nostalgic aura of “ring a ding ding” around him, and I never saw his performance here as “straight”. It’s a parody. Which is made even more explicit by the last shot of him, when we see what Archie Gates has been up to after the war. Hysterical. It’s fun to see Clooney come into his own. It happened late for him. It suits him.

– The early section of the film, up until the point where they hatch their plan to go retrieve “Kuwaiti bullion”, the movie has a pretty straightforward style. The colors look normal (albeit desert-monotonous), and while there are a couple of clues that this will be a different sort of movie (freezing each one of the characters in crazy moments, with text on the screen, telling us a little bit about them: “Troy Barlow – new father” “Conrad Rig – wants to be Troy Barlow”), it doesn’t look any different from any old war movie. But once they set off to get the gold, things become distinctly surreal, even down to the vibrant (even psychedelic) colors of pretty much everything: the blazing lime-green milk truck, the bright blue delivery van, the orange and blue and green murals of Saddam on all the walls). We’re leaving the real world and going into some fantasy land. Shadows appear stark and long (I think they must have filmed the entire movie during “magic hour”), and it just doesn’t look realistic, in any way, shape or form. The music floats above the movie, never commenting on it, just adding to it – there isn’t really a soundtrack, most of the music is either what they play on the cassette tape in their humvee, or eerie mood music when things start to get tense. The lack of a traditional score, mixed with the crazy colors crowding their way into every corner of the frame, makes it feel like the fantasy of adrenaline-surged men, as it is, as it should be.

– There’s one shot near the end of Mark Wahlberg (who plays Troy Barlow) and Ice Cube (who plays Chief Elgin). Barlow has been broken out of the interrogation room where he was being held, and one of their colleagues has been shot down. It finally is too much for him, and he breaks down in tears. Ice Cube comes over to him and puts his arm around him, holding him. I love that shot because I always think: Wow. Two hip hop rappers acting the SHIT out of their big emotional moment in a big Hollywood movie. In America, anything is possible.

– The portrayal of the Iraqis is subtle and a welcome change to the stereotype. The uprising has begun, and the war is over. Saddam’s army is turning on its own people. At one point, the “three kings” sit in a shelter with a bunch of Iraqis, hiding from tear gas that has gone off. Cliff Curtis (a wonderful actor from New Zealand – unforgotteable in Once Were Warriors – but here, he plays Amir, an Iraqi man, whose wife is killed before his eyes) holds his small daughter in his arms, and one of the American soldiers asks how she’s doing. He looks at the Americans and says flatly, “She’s traumatized. What do you expect.” Then he says, “I went to Bowling Green University. Came back here to open up a couple of hotels near Karbala. You guys bombed all my cafes.” What I love about that line is the sheer middle-class-ness of it, something that isn’t often shown in American movies about places like Iran, Iraq, etc. The vibrant and important middle-class. Their women may be veiled, but come on, they aren’t another species. I loved that line. Amir ends up emerging as a great character. He and Archie Gates look at one another and realize they need one another. So they strike a bargain. It is nice to see a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants something, and you cannot give something for nothing – because then it is uneven. Nobody THANKS you when you “give” them something, especially not if it feels like charity – it can breed resentment – but here: they go back and forth, bargaining, what’s in it for me, what’s in it for me? The way the world works. He’s a great character, played beautifully by Chris Curtis (without a trace of his very strong New Zealand accent).

– The scene where the milk truck explodes is really where the film moves into surreality. It’s gorgeously shot, first of all, but it’s such an absurd moment. A Republican Guard shoots at the incoming truck – it must be stopped! The driver is killed and the giant bright green truck skids out of control. The American soldiers step back, watching it spin around, horrified – and then the same Iraqi soldier shoots directly at the body of the truck. Everyone assumes it is oil or fuel in there, so they all leap out of the way, in exquisite (but, in retrospect, ridiculous) slo-mo. Out of the hole in the side of the truck pours a mountain of milk that floods the streets. People are pushed off their feet by the force of the milk, and there’s an amazing overhead shot of the three soldiers swimming in milk, against the side of a building. The insanity – and also the tragedy – because milk is obviously something people need. Then we see dogs lapping up the spilled milk, women running out with buckets, people scooping it into their mouths with bare hands … It’s a great sequence, very complicated but beautifully realized from start to finish.

– I love that the Kuwaiti gold is a true Macguffin. Yes, it gives rise to the title, the kings bearing gifts, etc., and it’s the reason everything gets started, but then – poof – it’s barely mentioned again. It’s a device, totally artificial – and has nothing to do with the actual story being told.

– Nora Dunn knocks her part out of the park. A kind of Christiane Amanpour wannabe, when she is frozen in the beginning, and her name is listed it says: “Adriana Cruz – 4-time Emmy award runner-up”. It immediately sets her up: her ambition, her drive, her ferocity. Only she could make a completely humorless character hilarious. She gets in a shouting match early in the film with another female journalist, who has been found banging George Clooney. The two women go at it, the younger journalist standing there in her bra. Clooney’s character is supposed to be Adriana’s military escort, and here he is, fucking around when he should be taking HER around. The younger journalist is a snot, and says, “I’m different from you, Adriana–” and Nora Dunn interrupts, “YES. I’M DRESSED. I HAVE MY CLOTHES ON.” Normally I don’t like when war movies try to work a female into the story, if it’s not called for, but here, it’s perfect.

– The banter between the four men (I suppose only the three leads are the “kings”, and Spike Jonze, a borderline retarded soldier, is the tag-along) is fast, funny, and specific. Again, they’re all chewing this stuff up and spitting it out – in a way that would seem ridiculous and over-the-top in a movie that wanted to seem serious. But here, they’re all just utilizing their huge personae, and batting up against one another, for the sheer fun of it. Clooney glances at Wahlberg after Jonze says some stupid remark, and says quietly, “Are you able to control him?” There’s a veneer here, somehow – the veneer of parody and satire – and it saves the film.

– It is not without its moving moments (the standoff between Wahlberg and his Iraqi interrogator is especially good), but the main feeling here is energy, movement, snark, and desire. Everyone is operating on a selfish level, they have to, and it brings the whole conflict alive. An Iraqi soldier, a deserter from Saddam’s army, now working with the rebellion stands in a bunker with all the gleaming cars stolen from Kuwait. Clooney wants to take the cars to go break Wahlberg out of the interrogation camp. Soldier shakes his head, “Cannot take.” Clooney tries to rouse the men into patriotic fervor – hoping he can get the cars by manipulating their primal emotions – and gives a speech, like many other “St. Crispian’s Day” speeches in war movies – meant to inspire men to action, and you wouldn’t be surprised if Clooney suddenly started rhapsodizing about “we few, we happy few.” He builds it up into a manic pace, “We’re all together – America – Iraq – many races – one goal – we are all together – we all want a FREE IRAQ ” But the way Clooney plays it, it feels sloppy and insincere, which makes it funny. How is TAKING these cars going to help free Iraq, Archie? Beneath his words (which he probably does believe on an abstract level) is desperation: I need those cars. The Iraqi soldiers (even the guy who refused him the cars in the first place) are whipped up into a frenzy by it. By the end, they are all screaming and cheering, “FREE IRAQ, FREE IRAQ FREE IRAQ” like the Revolution scenes in Reds. Clooney is SURE that this will do the trick, so he looks at his main adversary again. The soldier, with a big smile, says automatically, “Cannot take cars.” Clooney immediately deflates, his eyes go flat, and he says, “Okay, fine. We’ll buy them.” NOW you’re talking. It’s a moving moment, because basically what it comes down to is two men, who both need something, who try to get what they want, and who finally just get down to bargaining, because that’s the only way to move forward. It’s deeply humanistic, actually. There’s no do-gooding here.

– Mark Wahlberg running across the desert in his longjohns. I’d pay the full admission price just to see that.

– I saw Three Kings in the theatre, a matinee, with David and Mitchell, and we walked out of the theatre exhilarated and excited. It’s a war movie … but not. It’s a buddy movie … but not. It’s a journey, a chase, a battle … and when it needs to be sentimental, it doesn’t linger on it. It skips quickly over it. There’s one moment at the end where Clooney has tears in his eyes, and for me, the movie almost goes off the rails in that moment. It’s a delicate balance they’re trying to create here, as audacious as the movie is, and obnoxiously sure of itself. It is a transformative journey, of course it is, all of the men “go somewhere”, that’s the whole point of the movie, but the tears (and you only see them for a second) threaten, just a bit, to sink the movie into a cliche tarpit. But again, the restless camera moves on past. The movie is saved. Disaster averted.

– I’ve seen it multiple times, now, and it still gives me a strange ridiculous pleasure. Like the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” : it wants to make a splash. The pleasure is ridiculous because Three Kings seems so pleased with itself, it should be more obnoxious than it is. There are worse things than a movie being pleased with itself. It could bore me, condescend to me, try to teach me a lesson, moralize, pontificate, it could present me with the same cliches I have seen 100 times, it could underline every scene with a soundtrack that tells me how to feel, it could treat me like a moron, it could forget that the business of movies is to tell stories and entertain. Three Kings makes NONE of those errors. And no matter how many times I have seen it, I still love to see that milk come pouring out of the truck onto the sand. The image never gets old.


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8 Responses to Reasons I Love Three Kings (1999)

  1. mere says:

    I love this movie! LOVE..

  2. red says:

    Me too – it’s also one of those movies I can watch repeatedly. I had so much fun with it the first time I was almost afraid to go back and watch it again – but it really holds up!!

  3. brendan o'malley says:

    Interesting that Wahlberg worked with Russell again on I Heart Huckabees.

  4. red says:

    Yes! I think Russell, is obviously a difficult and volatile man – but I suppose you know that you at least will end up in a movie that is INTERESTING so you deal with it.

    Marky Mark (because that is how I will always think of him) is great here. Love his performance!

  5. JessicaR says:

    I like because it’s not captial S serious too. That’s not to say it treats war or the people as a joke. Oddly that’s what makes it so good, because it laughs at the absurdities of war while not forgetting the people chewed up by it. And the refugees taking Jonze’s body with them like he asked is one of the most quietly moving things I’ve ever seen.

  6. red says:

    Jessica – yes, I agree. It has just as much confidence with the moving moments as it does with all the rest. I loved the Spike Jonze character, and how everyone just seemed to realize they needed to make allowances for him. His adoration of Mark Wahlberg was really well played – made him seem very fragile, I thought.

  7. george says:

    Sheila,

    “… element of camp to the Clooney persona, the nostalgic aura of “ring a ding ding…”

    That is freakin’ brilliant!

  8. red says:

    George – hahaha Thank you!!!

    I think it was key that he found roles that exploited that throwback thing he has – an unapologetic bachelor, not all that serious – he’d rather crack jokes – but ultimately very likeable, like Dean Martin was.

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