Nick Pinkerton on Three Kings

The distance created by time has a remarkable capacity for unveiling seemingly obvious, stone-solid realities. The phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is rarely more true than when applied to the evaluation of film; the passage of years erodes cluttering minutiae, eases the pee-shy pressure of producing on-the-spot judgment, and, with bacterial precision, eats away everything except perhaps that one feeling, that one bit of dialogue, or that one essential scene. And though those remnants can often be anemic, truncated representations of a richer whole, they can just as frequently contain that keystone of truth which, to paraphrase M. Truffaut, gives a movie away. It was with these matters somewhere in mind that, as I approached re-viewing David O. Russell’s 1999 Gulf War opus, Three Kings, I confronted myself again and again with one hard question. Namely: Why was it forever branded in my memory as “that movie where Ice Cube blows up a helicopter with an explosive-rigged football”?

Russell’s film, the story of a clandestine U.S. military detachment going after misappropriated Kuwaiti gold and winding up in a taboo alliance with anti-Saddam rebels, is now half a decade old, and it would certainly seem to beg revisitation and reconsideration in light of contemporary events. Its narrative begins in the aftermath of “The Gulf War: Episode I,” in the ranks of a victorious American army at once exhilarated and let down; there’s an inescapable giddiness in these troops that comes with being on the winning team, but also a minority sentiment that their military action wasn’t quite the whiz-bang rollercoaster of daring escapes and death-defying heroics that everybody had braced themselves and halfway hoped for. One soldier is upset he didn’t get to use the night-vision goggles, another is afraid he’ll go home without seeing anyone killed, and, among those veterans who’ve seen these military passion plays acted out before, the resounding question remains: “What did we do here?” It’s that point that Three Kings ostensibly seeks to define.

The overall impression made by our titular (and erroneously numbered) ensemble is staunchly underwhelming, but it’s Russell’s vision of Iraq circa 1991, more than than any of Three Kings’ dramatis personae, that’s really intended as our protagonist. The white sands of the Fertile Crescent are vividly imagined here as a sprawling ashtray of the West’s second-hand cultural debris, and the gaudy signposts of American pop colonization are everywhere. One of the movie’s most dizzily gonzo moments comes as Clooney and Co. burst into a Saddam-pilfered treasure trove of electronics that’s something like a Baathite Service Merchandise; imperial guardsmen huff along on gold-plated cross-country machines to the beat of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” while (what else?) the Rodney King video plays prominently in the foreground. It’s just one of many such poisonously barbed images of commercial culture trippiness, as simultaneously smirkily funny and A-bomb obvious as anything by Bret Easton Ellis. And though most of this hit-or-miss sociopolitical satire is about as unfocused as Flirting With Disaster, Russell’s buckshot stab at checking the American pulse, Three Kings manages to pull off a truly inspired visual gag in one of the omnipresent murals depicting Saddam Hussein; recurrently seen in the background (but never dwelt upon) is the image of the grinning dictator dolled up in graduation cap and gown, proudly clutching a diploma. It’s an obscenely funny tossed-off set design flourish that feels unnervingly authentic; the black joke of despotism is all there, nakedly on display.

Lensed by Newton Thomas Sigel, who’s never met a high-grain stock he didn’t like, Three Kings is awash in attention-getting cinematographic effects; over-saturated Bart Simpson yellow and Coca-Cola red clash and glow nauseatingly against the blanched, blown-out desert backdrop while stop-motion clouds roil overhead. Explaining his decision to give the film its scrubbed-raw, washed-out aesthetic, director Russell stated that since Desert Storm was a “new kind of war,” a new kind of cinematic look was necessary to portray the conflict. It’s a laudable goal, yes, but do the movie’s hazy, hung-over visuals really fulfill that undertaking? The Ektachrome psychedelia lends the film an air of cultivated surrealism, but what truly-told war story, from the rat-a-tat trench-muck reportages of Céline to the unflinching death-from-a-window gaze of Polanski’s The Pianist, hasn’t been aware of the supreme absurdity and hyper-real unreality that’s inherent to times of strife? And though the first Gulf War was viewed by many as an entirely unprecedented kind of conflict, its most essential differences call for more than a tricked-out new get-up; they may, in fact, demand a new kind of narrative, and it’s in delivering this that Russell falters.

Its release now bookended by real-life invasions, Three Kings remains, amazingly, one of precious few American celluloid comments on the Iraqi conflict. This vacuum of cinematic representation is a baffling anomaly in film history; the flotsam leftovers of the Maine’s 1898 explosion hadn’t yet settled at the bottom of Havana harbor before crude “actualities” reproducing its detonation were being ground through every Nickelodeon across the country. Why then, hasn’t Iraq provided the usual cinematic paydirt that comes from the adrenal sturm-und-drang of warfare, and in these media-soaked times no less? Can we attribute this to some sick fulfillment of André Bazin’s impossible idea of total cinema, where quavering lines of fact and fiction have pre-empted the necessity of adapting America’s multi-billion dollar budgeted prime-time blockbuster (complete with Roman numeral to denote sequel status: ‘Gulf War II: The Quickening’), which already exists complete as a cinematic/entertainment object unto itself? In part, probably yes, but I have another explanation in mind, which is more simply this: the Iraqi conflicts have been pretty boring.

As crass as it may seem, it’s a matter of figures: from WWI to Vietnam the American military casualty rate hovered consistently around 15%; the threat of physical harm to our troops was both palpable and very real. The casualty rate in both Iraqi military actions, by contrast, stands at a paltry fraction of a fraction of a percent; you’re probably in more danger driving to work. On the American side, at least, there’s an astonishing lack of true grit in this new kind of pre-production heavy techie warfare, which, as a friend of mine observed, is closer to library science than traditionally perceived combat. The “aw shucks” doldrums that open Three Kings make it clear that Russell understands the dramatic flaccidity of the “mother of all battles,” whose duration and level of intensity was significantly less than your average Ken Burns documentary. It’s the theatrical pitfalls of that thoroughly hopeless military beat-down which prompt the film’s somewhat shakily worked-out heist plotline, serving the double function of drawing our principles away from the protective girth of the U.S. military and putting them in close culture-clashing contact with the heretofore faceless and inhuman “dune coons” that they’ve come to fight. The result, however, intentional or otherwise, is a re-imagination of Desert Storm as everything Desert Storm was not; it re-casts an unfamiliar kind of conflict within the well-worn confines of the war movie, thus ceasing to be specifically about the military action in the Persian Gulf and becoming, instead, a fairly rote genre exercise sluggish with politically specific rhetoric. Instead of moving the medium forward to match the evolving reality of modern combat, Russell’s film, deceptively conservative for all it’s cinematographic flash, has maneuvered reality two steps back.

Which brings us back to that C-4 football. The first time one of those Nerf missiles appears, it’s as our renegade detachment is using the neon foam for target practice clay pigeons. Ice Cube’s Chief Elgin is lobbing them up from the back of the group’s speeding Hum-vee when Jonze’s perturbed Pvt. Vig, who can’t manage a clean shot, matter-of-factly observes that “blacks ain’t good receivers and quarterbacks.” It’s no idle chatter this, but the set-up for a punchline that comes near the film’s denouement: while under heavy fire from an Iraqi helicopter, his company perilously out-gunned, Cube precisely chucks a gorgeously spiraling explosive pigskin that reduces the gunship threat to a slow-motion fireball. It’s the sort of dumb-ass fist-pumping moment, rife with both “Take that!” and “Yes I can!”, that would be neither off-putting nor out of place in, say, The Last Boy Scout, but in a movie which takes such obvious pains to toe the line between popcorn entertainment and serious treatise, and which so agonizingly circumnavigates cliché as to display its own intelligence, it’s a dead giveaway. A film that obviously aspires to newness and smarts, Three Kings’ caution in not drifting too far astray from multiplex acceptability finally costs it both. As one might well expect, a U2 song accompanies its closing credits.

This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot’s This Means War! symposium in July/August 2003.