Amidst the sinew and cartilage of cinema during 1999, so many new cinematic talents emerged from the fray that it can be easy to overlook some of the talents who, charitably speaking, took a while to truly do any emerging. One such force, David O. Russell, spent the better part of the next decade generally hiding from the cameras and doing his damnedest to sour his indie-goodwill, keeling over his once-bright reputation until he was known more as a blistering brute, an angry young discontent of a director behind-the-camera, than as a genuine talent whose skills were readily viewable on-screen. He became an untouchable, in other words, scaring off actors as far as the eye can see and sending them scouring for the new next young upstart director.
Of course, Russell has long since emerged from his own difficulties and forged a nice career as a slightly snarky, just ever-so prickly populist director who tackles old movie styles – the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the boxing picture – and updates them for the modern generation. In recent years, he’s become something of a go-to guy for acting nominations, and he’s amassed a stable of talented players ready and willing to go to bat for him when called on. Unfortunately, success has had the effect, as it does for so many directors, of numbing his fiery impulses and curbing his personal proclivities and idiosyncrasies. His recent films have all been competent affairs, no doubt, but his once-proud indie spark has largely subsided for producing generally pleasing, somewhat indifferent middlebrow material only ever-so-slightly tweaked to seem more biting and challenging than they really are.
A problem that is also somewhat true of his best film, 1999’s Three Kings, a work that has not stood the popular test of time quite like many of its fellow Class of ’99 compatriots. At some level, Three Kings is really a dusting off of the tired-old road movie sub-genre, albeit cleverly supplanted in this case to the Middle East during America’s invasion into Iraq during the first Gulf War. It also doesn’t have the full courage of its convictions; at some point, it becomes just another tell-not-show message movie affixed atop a populist action crowd-pleaser, and this ever-troubling gesture, where Russell posits a thornier film than he eventually delivers, has proven to be his most telling link as a director. He has the heart of a populist, even when his head tries to take him gallantly toward more disconcerting, more troubling, and ultimately more exciting filmic regions.
Still, for a great long while in Three Kings, his head wins out. Three Kings grandstandingly rushes forward at a fever pitch, scrappily and scraggily throwing caution and propriety to the wind to pursue its own cinematic star. Russell displays the cocksure cinematic swagger of a young New Hollywood director, never once resting on his laurels and always pulsing and questing for a new episode of pure, id-soaked cinematic bravado. He follows four American military-types amidst the backdrop of the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War, but his film isn’t the film we might expect. For Major Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), the war is largely over, the men having gone overseas and ended their tours almost as quickly as they began. Left wanting post-conflict and stuck on day-to-day tasks such as speaking to civilians and scouring the regions around their encampment, the four find hope in a get-rich-quick scheme when they discover a map of Saddam Hussein’s stolen gold. From here, they take a military vehicle and get to, almost literally, digging for gold in a quest that recalls the many prospectors of the American Old West.
A recollection that can’t but be intentional. When the men arrive at the gold, they find it underground, and not without a bravado hail of bulletfire. A bravado that is also inseparable from a critique of bravado, and a criticism of the modern American male as it exists in the theater of the world. Russell’s treatment of the American military experience in the Middle East as a restless action movie plays on the idea that for America, the war really wasn’t much more than a grand old exercise in playing with our guns in the sand. Newton Thomas Sigel’s dust-soaked, amber cinematography expresses the wide emptiness of the American West – albeit nominally transplanted into the Middle East – as Russell exposes some of the ways in which the modern American theater of war is largely our nation’s attempt to fulfill its latent dreams of playing cowboys in the sand. We casually glimpse the domesticity of the modern American male at home in the US, seeing Barlow and Elgin uncomfortable with the mundane qualities of their supposed civilized lives, and Russell juxtaposes this domesticity with the freewheeling, almost acidic, high the men experience careening and cavorting down the endless yellow of the sandy imagination-scape of the Middle East. Russell’s point is clear: for these men, their quest for gold is part of a long tradition of restless, hungry American men busting out of their everyday lives to ruggedly tackle new territory, claiming land for themselves and finding wealth and muscle-kissing glory while they’re at it.
When our heroes proceed to have their wild-man dreams handed to them upon realizing they really don’t know what they are doing, Russell’s screenplay increasingly exposes their over-zealous machismo and clarifies the ways in which this modern-action-movie-in-the-Wild-East idea is really their own fantasy. And America’s. When his film plays on the idea of oil having replaced the decades-old quest for gold, he mocks our heroes for their unmovingly traditional belief that in this larger political theater they can somehow stumble upon a stash of gold. Especially when he puts a reporter with a camera in the film in a B-plot, he dances around, although never quite states, the point that this could only ever happen in a movie, and that these four men are just numbskullian American-types who never bothered to legitimately understand the land or the people their nation invaded, largely utilizing that land and those people instead for pursing their Orientalist fantasies of taming a wild land and coming away richer for it. Russell’s film says, essentially, that America invading the Middle East was just our own national attempt to play out the Western movies of our dreams, and that the people of the Middle East themselves didn’t much matter to any of us Westerners other than as backgrounds to our own braggadocio and scheming money-grubbing. War is our national fantasy of macho men saving the world.
Considering this subtle layer of satire, it is almost possible to excuse the feel-good, American-male-saving ending, where our heroes do humanize themselves and save a cadre of Arab refugees, for its tacked-on qualities. It almost feels intentionally tacked-on, as though we are supposed to openly address how unfitting it is for the film that it follows and to realize, ultimately, that what we are watching is a big dumb action movie entrusted with the history of the American action movie. We are watching a director with his toys in the sand, literally playing with the theater of the Middle East as an avenue for his populist entertainment, and the arbitrary qualities of the ending almost invite us to double-back and critique the film for becoming what it aspires to criticize. It’s a little too unstable (the film is deeply unstable in fact, which is its primary fascination) to call this in the film’s favor though, and the final fifteen minutes feel like they belong in another movie.
Specifically, the film dances right up to the gate of saving the heroes in these final moments, turning them into the fantastical moralist men they fantasize about being, in a switch-up that is as inexplicable as John Wayne’s save-face saving of Natalie Wood in John Ford’s The Searchers, the director’s famously dialectical exercise in the Western trying to come to terms with itself. If the finale of Three Kings criticizes the American military writ-large for its purely economic interest in the war, it still posits its heroes as the sole saving grace of Arab refugees, implicitly discovering the humanity of the American male in an act of playing in the sand like so many other Western films. Still, the over-bearing and often barbaric collision of tones and styles is part of the film’s ragged, even amateurish appeal, and even if you have to squint to justify the ending as an intentional satire of feel-good endings, arriving at the other end of this justification produces a hell of an argument in the film’s favor.
All this thematic texture can’t complicate one simple fact though: as a work of pure craft, Three Kings is exhilarating, matching and exceeding the much more-touted Fight Club from the same year as a purely screwy, whiplash technical showpiece and sacrificing none of its heady, caustic political diatribe in doing so. Three Kings is a work that gleefully cavorts from neo-realist directing to quietly mythic cinematography to screwball comedy editing techniques straight out of a batty, catty ’40s newsreel piece. It is the sort of wooly, even confused, work you go to for the accidents waiting to happen, for the sense of vivacious, life-giving danger visible stewing on the screen (enhanced, naturally, by the too-apparent in-fighting and danger on set that almost ended the film in production several times over).
The film shifts on a moment’s notice (and frequently before a moment’s notice) from a pop-art farce re-reading of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to a work of unsure surrealism and back again, even when it is working against itself and the whole film gets lost amidst the brambles of its own cocaine-rush. That sort of madcap, untidy, volatile energy is long gone in the modern film world, where every work feel so prim and proper and just-out-of-finishing-school that there are precious few genuine works of off-kilter unease anymore. Russell’s film is an imperfect film for sure, probably more imperfect than a great many other films released in the same year. But with these sorts of disorderly imperfections, creating a film that always feels just on the edge of tumbling over and blowing up, who would have it any other way?