Three Kings (O’Russell, 1999)

“What’s the most important thing?” – Maj. Archie Gates musing to his trio of young followers.

Stated with ease by the effortlessly believable George Clooney, Gates’ pragmatic answer is universal. “Necessity.” Throughout David O’Russell’s masterful war/comedy/satire Three Kings, this shape-shifting word, necessity, changes meanings many times. First, Gates, Sfc. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), SSgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Pfc. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), set off to quench their thirst (or need) for Kuwati gold stolen by Saddam Hussein in the first Iraq War. The war is over and America is pulling out and Saddam’s soldiers are retreating into the desert to destroy the rebellion by the citizens of Iraq. An easy heist awaits Gates and his men. Then, something amazing happens. After successfully stealing the gold from a bunker outside of Karbala, the Americans witness an example of the atrocities to come. The townspeople are being rounded up, beaten and killed. Walk off with the gold, or help the Iraqi people? The necessity of Three Kings suddenly becomes clear. O’Russell’s transition scene, the now famous brilliantly stylized shootout, is also a dedication to humanity, which ultimately becomes the key counterpoint to the waste surrounding Gates, his men, and the Iraqi refugees they find themselves willed into helping. The blown up milk truck, the torture that follows Barlow’s capture (specifically the reference to Michael Jackson), the collateral damage, the mined cow, the oil fields burning in the distance, all represent this toxic waste of war. O’Russell travels through the dystopic desert mise-en-scene with hilarious interactions and virtuosic action set pieces, always keeping his eye on the ball, or shall I say the necessity of his character’s humanity. While Gates, Barlow, Chief, and Conrad show a diverse side of American foreign policy, they all begin greedy, and collectively realize the consequences of looking the other way are too great to ignore. It’s as if there’s a built in understanding of honor under the layer of greed western ideology and consumerism has to offer. So there is hope. But Three Kings is not a bed of roses, nor does it avoid critiquing the massive fuck up American military action can be, indicting everyone from the President down to the media reporting. I was hesitant to revisit a film I’d felt so strongly about back in college. Needless to say, Three Kings holds up. Great films stay fresh for years, even decades. With the current Iraq war still raging, Three Kings is a necessary dissection of modern warfare, crucially charting the humanity that can be gleaned from the madness and waste inherent in such an evil.

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