Sunday, May 17, 2015

Three Kings (1999) ***

Somehow I had gotten it in my head that Spike Jonze directed this film. Maybe it's because the actor/director is so hilarious as the idiot, redneck character Conrad. “Three Kings” is, in fact, directed and partly written by David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”), and it is better than it has any right to be. On the one hand, Russell has written a highly implausible heist movie combined with a rather preachy morality tale, all set in the first Iraq War. On the other hand, the combined performances are so compelling that the movie somehow works.

Troy (Mark Wahlberg), Conrad (Jonze), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are army reservists finishing up an almost action-free stint in Operation Desert Storm. While processing Iraqi POWs, they find a map that appears to lead to one of Saddam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold. Before the guys can even process the possibilities, Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) has sniffed out the situation and muscled his way into it. This is just as well, as none of the other guys would have a chance of putting together a way to steal that loot. Under Archie's guidance, they find and steal the gold, relying on the reluctance of the defeated Iraqis to instigate hostilities with American soldiers.

During the heist, the men discover that with the fighting officially over, Iraqi forces are concentrating on suppressing those Iraqis who tried to rise up against Saddam during the brief war. They are rounding up and torturing rebels and starving out entire villages. Faced directly with this reality, the men have to chose between completing their heist as planned or intervening.

While Wahlberg and Clooney get top billing in this film, they are far from the most memorable characters. The interaction between Spike Jonze's moronic, racist Conrad and Ice Cube's Chief easily steals the show. Nora Dunn provides some excellent comic relief as a war reporter hustling for a story. Best of all, however, are the actors who portray the Iraqis. Cliff Curtis, who is actually of New Zealand Maori descent rather than Arab, is a magnetic presence as the rebel leader. Said Taghmaoui is unforgettable as an Iraqi officer who tortures Troy while calling him “my main man.” His “What's the problem with Michael Jackson” speech may be the best part of the movie.

Ultimately, “Three Kings” is about individuals making hard choices in the face of a hypocritical U.S. foreign policy and an uncaring military machine. The movie addresses a little-discussed aspect of America's Iraq wars. America encouraged Iraqi dissidents to rebel against Saddam, and they did so thinking we would be invading to back them up. When we stopped the war instead, they were left exposed to torture, disappearances, and execution. Is it any wonder that America has trouble finding reliable friends in Iraq now?

3 stars out of 5

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