Three Kings provides some thrills, but sadly ends up a shallow and confused film

Three Kings is a big, loud, uneven war comedy. It’s one of those rare movies that’s as inflated as the hype surrounding it. The critics-at-large are in love with it, some going so far as to compare it to Apocalypse Now. The director David O. Russell is being touted as a revolutionary auteur for the new millennium. Roger Ebert thinks Three Kings is a “masterpiece” in the line of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.

There is certainly a remarkable energy in Three Kings. David O. Russell knows how to assemble an arresting sequence, and his films (his first two were Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster) wonderfully realize the potential for fun in cinema, but there’s something strangely hollow and unoriginal about his “masterful” creativity. My mind full of the hype, I watched Three Kings for something fresh and super-cool, something I hadn’t seen before that would move me deeply (Is this what movies have become? Is auteurism merely a catchphrase now for clever, irreverent exhibitionists?), and only one image jumped out at me: the vaguely plastic inside of a man’s body after he has been shot, his slippery guts filling with bile. If only Russell had gone this far with the rest of the film.

With all its fancy camerawork (Russell eats up film stock like it’s candy – sweet, colorful and insignificant) and engaging performances, the film is astonishingly predictable and inert. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t engrossed either. The plot, adapted from a story by John Ridley, follows four soldiers, a gumbo of war-movie personas: old somber retiring man (George Clooney), black religious man (Ice Cube), married nervous man (Mark Wahlberg) and the always tedious borderline-retarded hick (Spike Jonze).

In an attempt to get something out of a bland and pointless Gulf War, they heist millions of dollars worth of gold bullion, stolen from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. Problems arise, however, when they run into Iraqi refugees who, if left behind by the American soldiers, will almost certainly be killed by Hussein. Naturally, their conscience (a collective conscience – all four of the haggard soldiers are somewhat blandly good at heart) gets the better of them, and the mission becomes something out of Schindler’s List – they must save the refugees. Insert contrived, Oliver Stone-influenced monologues about how much George Bush stinks and tedious, drawn-out scenes of walking refugees.

The plot isn’t at all suitable for David O. Russell’s maverick, excessively sarcastic style. He wants to make M*A*S*H or Catch-22, but the sappy plot won’t let him. Russell is aware of the story’s conventions (each character is introduced as a subtitled stereotype), but he never meaningfully transcends them. The result is a technically dazzling but ultimately messy movie with a flawed emotional core.

Perhaps the critics are onto something, though. Perhaps this is what an American masterpiece looks like in 1999, flippantly hovering somewhere between M*A*S*H and Mean Streets, between self-referential, neo-Brechtian satire and harsh culture-obsessed realism. Russell, therefore, wouldn’t need to choose a conviction: he could simply tug at heartstrings and ridicule society within the confines of an explosive action movie. When Iraqi Captain Said (Saïd Taghmaoui) viciously tortures American Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) because his “sick” country reveres a “freak” like Michael Jackson, we buy the absurdity as very innovative high art, because, in a country that owes ninety percent of its present wit to The Simpsons and Quentin Tarantino, mediocre pop-culture and violent irony are profound signifiers. Reality is boring, and straight satire is too risky and alienating. At our core, we are cowboys watching ourselves on television.

If this is true, if one cannot make a tight, unified personal American expression anymore because truth and personality no longer exist, then, hey, maybe we should all just shoot ourselves and watch our heads fill up with bile.