In "Three Kings," director David O. Russell peers behind the veil of media-fueled boosterism that kept the realities of the Gulf War from American eyes. What he comes up with is perhaps the most politically astute studio release since Bulworth. But correct politics are no substitute for dramatic coherence, and it's on that front that his film loses its battle for our hearts and minds.
There's a lot to love about the cynical (read: accurate) view of international peacekeeping that's at work in this desert-bound tale of avarice and awakening. As Operation Desert Storm draws to a swift close, the American soldiers stationed in Iraq wrestle with feelings of combatus interruptus. They're galled that they saw no action during the initiative and must go home without any evidence -- tangible or visceral -- that their tour of duty was worthwhile.
Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (George Clooney) has a solution. When three of his fellow servicemen learn of a nearby storehouse of stolen Kuwaiti gold, Gates convinces them to join him in an unsanctioned seizure mission. Making the gold their own, he reasons, will be restitution for their wasted time.
Delving into the thick of Iraqi territory, however, the four witness the atrocities Hussein is perpetrating on his people as he retightens his militaristic grip. Suddenly, making off with the treasure is less important than standing up for a defenseless citizenry that's about to be abandoned by the U.S. government.
This is potentially transfixing material, and it's supported by inventive camerawork that reinforces the horrors of armed aggression. Bullets are followed through the air in slow motion, and interior close-ups of the human anatomy demonstrate the damage that even a nonfatal gunshot can wreak.
If we had the slightest inkling who our protagonists were beneath their fatigues, "Three Kings" would live up to its promise. But three out of the four are tin soldiers we wouldn't follow into war, let alone Leavenworth. Gates has virtually no backstory -- there's scant explanation of where he comes from or what drives him -- and Clooney doesn't possess the talent to flesh the part out on his own. His portrayal of a compassionate hard-ass is cartoonish; it's as if he's finally figured out how to play Batman, but two years too late and in the wrong movie.
Ice Cube has similar trouble with the role of Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin, whose Christian faith sets him apart from his less serene comrades. Cube can turn in fine work when cast to bombastic type, but he's utterly unable to differentiate between quiet dignity and narcolepsy. Dim-witted Pvt. Conrad Vig (video and film director Spike Jonze) is primarily used for redneck comic relief. There's one in every war movie.
The exception is Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), who unexpectedly bonds with one of his Iraqi captors in a torture sequence that's the film's standout moment. Barlow is given the character arc the other men are denied, and Wahlberg plays it for all it's worth.
It's Gates, however, who's supposed to sound the story's moral wake-up call, departing from his previous detachment by persuading the men to stay behind and risk their lives for justice. The entire movie hinges on his conversion, but it comes too fast and with too little motivation to be believable.
Though it's noble to envision a scenario in which humanism wins out over expediency, forcing the issue backhandedly reinforces our awareness that no such activity took place in the Persian Gulf. In reality, the war ended, most of the soldiers came home, and we all found new Must-See TV to watch. Ask Clooney about that one; it's what got him here, and it's the battlefield he's going back to soon enough.