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Three Kings

This is not your father's war film. While generations of Americans have grown up with the conventional war flick genre (in the theater or on home-video), writer-director David O. Russell's 1999 Three Kings pays homage to his predecessors while fashioning something very, very original — and entirely appropriate, as the 1990-91 Gulf War was vastly unlike any other military operation in U.S. history. Both World War I and World War II were fundamentally about national racism, while the Korean and Vietnam wars were an extension of the Truman Doctrine (and 'Nam effectively buried that foreign policy), but if these wars had economic implications, the Gulf War was about nothing but economics: a large, impoverished Arab state invading a small, wealthy one, and the inevitable rejoinder from the industrialized Western countries, who regarded Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and his apparent attempt to control the international flow of oil, as a direct threat to their oil-dependent economies. Carefully media-managed by the U.S. government and cloaked by a thin veneer of human-rights issues, the "Nintendo war" was over before it started (the ground war only lasted 100 hours), and the mopping up was all but forgotten by the cable news organizations and the American public. But the mopping up is where Three Kings happens, as four cynical U.S. Army soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze), who all have their beefs with the Army brass, discover a map that could lead them to stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion — gold that, under the cease-fire agreement, is the property of Kuwait and subject to seizure by U.S. forces. Taking to the road in a Humvee, the reckless foursome ponder what they could do with millions of dollars in war booty, but their rogue mission is soon sidetracked by Iraqi soldiers, rebels, and civilians, who are engaged in a low-grade power struggle in the war's devastating aftermath, forcing the group to decide what is more important: plundering a demilitarized zone, or using what little power they have to help those who have suffered the most under Hussein's jackboot.

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For war-film fans, Three Kings is valuable viewing, particularly since it is the only serious movie to address the nature of the Gulf War, and Russell includes many conventional war elements in the two-hour running time (close-quarter combat, a helicopter attack, a mission to rescue a captured comrade, the mournful loss of a fellow soldier on foreign soil). But he also couches these sequences in the unique context of wartime Iraq, where Hussein's Republican Guard hoards expensive automobiles, watches, jewelry, cell phones, and other items for their imposing leader — valuables that the Kuwaitis want back, and that this handful of U.S. soldiers is not above stealing. Meanwhile, the Iraqi citizens they meet are not zealots, nor do they love Saddam. An imprisoned Iraqi dissident rescued by the soldiers is a hotelier who complains that Saddam has completely wrecked his business interests (where have we heard this before?), while two other Iraqis are barbers who want nothing more than to make a peaceful living cutting hair. Everything comes down to money, and as he's working in such a contemporary milieu, Russell lends so much filmmaking bravado to the mix that Three Kings borders on the avant garde, with hyperkinetic editing, free-flowing cameras, overexposed film for exterior scenes (shot in Arizona), brutal violence, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a muddled mess of ethics that never completely absolves the Americans, despite a questionable conclusion that threatens to oversimplify a gloriously complicated script. Warner's Three Kings DVD is a great item, and it's solid value for the money, with a crisp widescreen anamorphic transfer and a blistering DD 5.1 track that keeps the speakers working overtime. Supplements include two commentary tracks (one with Russell, the other with producers Chuck Roven and Ed McDonnell); the 20-minute behind-the-scenes documentary "Under the Bunker: On The Set of Three Kings"; deleted scenes with commentary by Russell; interviews with Ice Cube and director of photography Tom Sigel; hidden features (including a tour of the Iraqi village set and some special photography by actor Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich); and DVD-ROM content.

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