Veni, Vidi, Vici

Hail the conquering heroes: Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) smile in the face of disaster

Hail the conquering heroes: Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) smile in the face of disaster

While Patrick Buchanan and a clique of historians debate the origins of World War II in the nation's op-ed pages, it is often in the movies that the people appeal the verdicts of history. In 1985 Sylvester Stallone returned to the jungles of Southeast Asia and rewrote the Vietnam War with a triumphant ending. Now David O. Russell's Three Kings sets off for the sands of the Persian Gulf to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This mission begins in the film's opening sequence, as Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) comes upon an Iraqi soldier standing on a dune in the distance. After cautioning the enemy to lower his weapon, the mild-mannered Barlow cuts him down with machine-gun fire. When he reaches the fallen soldier, Barlow notices the white flag in the Iraqi's hand, and hangs his head in self-disgust. Meanwhile, the Americans around him hoot in excitement: Finally, this reserve division has seen some action.

Back at the bivouac that evening, the troops rumpshake to early-Nineties rap like it's graduation night at Gamma House. Troy and his dim buddy Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) give each other fresh buzz cuts inside a tent that pulses with light, while retiring Special Forces major Archie Gates sits beneath a bouncing female correspondent in the media tent. Banging the on-camera talent is apparently part of collecting the spoils of war. In the scenes that follow, Troy and Conrad retrieve a gold map from the arse of an Iraqi POW, directing them toward a series of nearby bunkers. Led by Gates, and joined by an earnest company member, Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), the Americans joy-ride their way into the desert on a Humvee, and the real plunder begins.

The Gulf War was all about such banal cupidity. Kuwait saw its borders overrun because the country's ruling al-Sabah family flooded the oil market at the same time as Iraqi war vets were growing restive after their bloody standoff with Iran. Next, Saddam Hussein's brutal kleptocracy pillaged Kuwait of German luxury cars, Cartier pens, Tiffany jewelry, and all the other accouterments of obscene oil wealth, leaving the noble American-led coalition to make Kuwait's oil fields once again safe for democracy--or safe for democracy among the small, native, male population then allowed to vote.

As military adventures go, this wasn't exactly the liberation of Paris, a fact that Russell makes clear with a string of grisly gags. The gallivanting Americans watch as a buried cluster bomb obliterates a wandering cow, its flesh raining down on them and its intact head landing on the Humvee's hood. Elsewhere, a hard-boiled correspondent, played by Nora Dunn, bursts into crocodile tears at the sight of pelicans coated in pools of crude. The comedy here is dark, though the screen itself appears bleached as a result of the Ektachrome film stock, typically used in Instamatic cameras. It's as if there's no black or gray when it comes to the ethics of this war--just varying shades of white.

The misery of beasts is insignificant compared to the suffering of the Iraqi population. They are being tortured and terrorized by the remnants of Saddam's military, having already been abandoned by the Americans in their stunted uprising. These are the people whom Gates and company discover outside the gold bunker, cheering their liberators and pleading for relief. In an excruciating sequence, the raiding Americans throw MRE rations from the back of the vehicle while speeding off in pursuit of fortune. Later the Iraqi troops line up to load gold into the Americans' truck in exchange for their apathy and their quick departure. These scenes amount to a damning--and hardly oblique--metaphor for the way the Gulf War coalition abandoned Kurds and Shiite dissidents to be massacred by the remnants of Saddam's army.

It seems worth asking why Warner Bros. produced such an unflinching condemnation of a war that stirred great patriotism in this country and enjoyed nearly universal popularity. The answer is: It didn't. No, the studio put its money behind another movie, the second half of Three Kings, in which these rogue American troops discover their empathy, their humanity, and their capacity for heroism. This is also the part of the movie where indie auteur David O. Russell proves his ability to stage frivolous action sequences with exploding helicopters, and to accumulate a Hollywood-sized body count.

A friend with impeccable lefty credentials has argued that Three Kings is a scathing and subversive war movie, and that the redemption offered to Gates, Barlow, et al., is intended to highlight the notion that they are the exception to America's broader failure--in other words, that the reassuring resolution of the movie is like Bertolt Brecht's false ending to The Three Penny Opera, where the rescuer announces that in real life, no relief or justice ever comes. And, in part, he's right: It is a rare movie that shows the dread Republican Guard working out on Nordic Tracks to the strains of an Eddie Murphy single, while their colleagues in the next room shock a dissident who is shackled to bedsprings. Yet the fact is that Russell spends more than an hour dramatizing the fantasy that American troops rescued Iraqis. It is impossible to ignore the way Russell's camera turns to the orphan who has seen her mother gruesomely executed, as her father pleads with Gates to look into the girl's eyes. And audiences will probably spot the cliché when the Americans risk insubordination in order to spirit prisoners out of Iraq--a plot twist employed by none other than Rambo.

There is a very bad movie hiding inside Three Kings, a rousing and patronizing slab of Hollywood starring a trio such as Kurt Russell, Wesley Snipes, and Greg Kinnear. Russell, to his credit, hasn't made this movie. Instead, he has cast cool antiheroes in the film's leads. It is only a matter of time until audiences recognize Clooney, the gentle patriarch, as a box-office star; if Wahlberg could shed some muscle, he could thrive in the part of the beleaguered stiff; and Jonze, mostly known as a clever video director, will no doubt be called back in front of the camera. Even the weakest stretches of the picture feature such spectacles as an interrogation sequence that starts with questions about Michael Jackson, and views of a gunshot casualty from inside the wound channel.

Ultimately, it remains to be decided whether Three Kings has delivered a spoonful of sugar to make some hard medicine go down, or whether it has sugarcoated what might otherwise have been a brilliantly acid film. In either case, no one could accuse Russell of being the first American to lose his nerve in the sand.


Three Kings is playing at area theaters.