Looking back at David O Russell’s Three Kings

With Three Kings now available on Blu-ray, we take a look back at David O Russell’s unique, thought-provoking desert heist movie...

David O. Russell’s 1999 film Three Kings was a film I used to watch frequently in the early days of DVD. And with the recent release of the film on Blu-ray, and the announcement that Russell is set to bring my favourite modern videogame franchise, Uncharted, to the big screen, I thought it was time to give the film another look.

The film opens with a brief scene of American soldiers seeming confused and shooting a man waving a white flag. and almost immediately cuts back to base camp to show that there’s a celebratory mood in the air. A peace treaty has just been signed, meaning that the troops can go home, so spirits are high.

It’s here that we’re given an introduction to each of the key characters: Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), who has a young family at home and enlisted to earn some extra cash to provide for them; Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), an ignorant redneck who wants to be Troy; Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), a devout Christian who was a baggage handler back home; and Major Archie Gates (George Clooney), a member of the special forces who has grown tired of the life of war that he has become accustomed to.

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When Barlow and Vig find a treasure map hidden up an Iraqi soldier’s backside, they decide to go to the sites marked out, as they’re convinced that these locations house Saddam’s stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold. Barlow, Vig and Elgin are initially reluctant to have Gates on board, however, the fact that he’s such an experienced soldier and that they had seen very little action up to that point meant that they needed him more than he needed them, and they embark on the adventure to retrieve the gold.

It’s soon discovered that the early celebrations are misjudged, as the peace treaty signed to bring America’s involvement in the conflict to an end essentially consigned a vast number of people to death, as Saddam’s republican guard were keen to make an example of those that rose up against him.

Gates and co are faced with a decision between turning a blind eye, taking the gold and getting out of there, or doing what they deep down feel is the right thing to do by standing up for inhabitants of the village that forms part of the uprising, risking their own lives in the process. Obviously, the fact that the soldiers are attempting to steal Kuwaiti gold is a despicable act, but had they not embarked on the heist, the dozens of people they escorted over the border would have surely been killed.

The fact that the four protagonists are essentially self-serving opportunists, out for their own interests, and remain likeable and easy to root for, is a big compliment to both the script and the actors’ performances. Without exception, all involved give an incredible performance, which is particularly impressive given the fraught nature of the production.

It seemed that at almost every stage there were major problems. There were questions over the screenplay as John Ridley claimed that Russell had taken his story, which was a Gulf War heist movie that carried the title The Spoils Of War. The fact that Warner Bros, the studio that backed Three Kings, had optioned Ridley’s script adds weight to the argument, although Russell would maintain that he hadn’t read the script and merely liked the idea and made it his own.

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The gruelling production and the methods that Russell employed caused conflict too, as his off the cuff style led to actors working longer days in the Arizona deserts that were providing the replacement for Iraq. Russell was under an incredible amount of pressure as this was the largest project he had been involved in at that point, and the pressure would manifest itself, as he would reportedly frequently fly off the handle, which caused a significant amount of conflict between him and Clooney, who was eager to stand up for the cast and crew. This eventually resulted in a well-reported physical fight between the two of them.

A lot of the political commentary was apparently toned down at the request of the studio, but both Russell and Clooney fought to keep things as close to the original script as possible and, as such, the film still manages to carry an effective message alongside the heist movie structure at its core.

Although Clooney openly stated that he would never work with Russell again, despite acknowledging the fact that he’s a highly talented director, Mark Wahlberg returned to work with him on I Heart Huckabees. I’m not sure how popular a move it would be, but I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if he’s cast in Uncharted.

Clooney carries a sense of exasperation and frustration throughout his performance, which is understandable, considering he was working solidly between his work on the film and his ER commitments, as well as standing up for members of the cast and crew when he deemed that Russell was overreacting or mistreating the people around him. Although perhaps not intentional, it adds depth to the character of Major Archie Gates, who has clearly had enough of the war and is keen to get out with the rewards he feels that he’s entitled to.

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Still, despite the film’s problems, the results are quite outstanding. Russell is without question a talented auteur who had a clear view on what his vision for the project was and had the conviction to stick to his guns and create the film he wanted to, albeit with a few concessions here and there. There are brilliant artistic flourishes throughout the film that, to some, may seem gimmicky, but for me they’re interesting and hugely effective in the context of the scenes in which they feature.

The vivid depiction of the onset of sepsis following a gunshot wound acts as an effective image of the impact of being shot and is used later on in the film to devastating effect.

It’s not an old film, by any means, but it’s worth mentioning that it has held up incredibly well in the years since its release. The political message at its core is still relevant today, and from a technical perspective, nothing seems dated or poorly executed.

I find the majority of Russell’s works interesting, but this is, by far, my favourite and one that I’d recommend highly for those who haven’t seen it.

The Blu-ray might not be the most impressive I’ve seen. The picture is quite grainy, which is understandable when considering the type of equipment and film stock Russell opted for in bringing a sense of realism to the piece. However, the sound is quite disappointing, with a lot of it seeming quite muddy and it’s another in a long line of releases where the sound levels of effects and dialogue are out of proportion and balance. But even with its faults, it’s the best format I’ve seen the film in.

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Three Kings is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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