With his latest effort, Three Kings, Russell joins the group of directors who have managed to create intelligent, well-crafted films while working with studio backing.
A trio of salient characteristics identify films in this new wave of non-crappy cinema. First, the movies tend to be labeled "black comedies" while actually being dramas with some laughs organically woven into the scripts. Second, those scripts stress strongly motivated action and multi-faceted characters. While stereotypes are helpful in defining characters during the relatively short 110-minute time span of the average film, it's far too easy for a writer or director to identify heroes and villains if those characters act only within the bounds of their stereotypes. Real people are never simply good or evil. Third, the films combine a cynicism toward commonly held ideas or tacitly supported institutions with a belief in the possibility of individual human redemption, even when the institutions and ideas surrounding these humans are unredeemable.
What makes Three Kings so specifically excellent (despite a number of glaring flaws) is its attitude towards the participants, witting and unwitting, in what was called "The Gulf War." (The philosopher Jean Baudrillard once quipped that there was no "Gulf War," since war involves two armies fighting each other, and not one army bombing the hell out of the other as it tried to hide or run away.)
Starting the day after the signing of the cease-fire, Three Kings lifts a plot point from Kelly's Heroes: Saddam Hussein has stolen hundreds of pounds of bullion from the Kuwaitis, and four soldiers have just uncovered a map to its whereabouts.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze play the soldiers who set out to pick up the loot, but in standard movie fashion, get more than they bargained for. (The phrase "more than they bargained for" can be used in describing virtually any Hollywood film...try it, it's fun; Jaws: Three men go on a fishing trip and get more than they bargained for!!! Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O'Hara goes husband hunting and gets more than she bargained for!!! Citizen Kane: Charles Kane rises to the top of the newspaper business, but gets more than he bargained for!!!)
What they didn't bargain for was Iraqi citizens expecting the Americans to help them overthrow Hussein. They also didn't bargain for getting shot at, or being captured, or getting involved in a mini-revolution.
In the most telling scene of the film, Mark Wahlberg is interrogated by Iraqi officer Captain Sa'id, played with show-stealing iciness by Said Taghmaoui, who would get an Academy Award for his work here, if they actually gave Academy Awards for such things as "acting."
He begins the interrogation by asking "What's the deal with Michael Jackson?" This question opens up Sa'id's critique of what he calls "your sick culture." In cool, frighteningly detached tones, he says that he joined the army for the extra money, but now he can't get out. When the bombs starting falling, his wife was crippled, and his one-year-old son killed by falling debris.
This scene could easily have been maudlin or bathetic, but Taghmaoui's stunned, hurt and angry coolness, and the careful scripting by writer/director Russell, make it something almost entirely original and effective.
It's commonplace in American action films for the heroes to behave with extreme cruelty towards the villains. From Dirty Harry stepping on a kidnapper's wounded arm to Skeet Ulrich blowing up a bad guy in Chill Factor, we take torture and maiming of the announced enemy for granted. What's interesting and new in Three Kings is that here, the "bad guy," an Iraqi officer, is beating one of the "good guys," a U.S. soldier, but his perfect delivery in describing the horrors he suffered during the war make his actions, if not laudable, at least understandable. It's the flip-side of the action film: a scene where everyone is human, everyone can justify their violence, and so no violence is justified.
The cinematography of Three Kings is also stellar: director Russell borrows from Bergman in showing the silhouettes of people walking on hilltops and eerie figures moving through a smoky battlefield, but he also makes use of post-Matrix effects in following every bullet from barrel to (human) target, making each shot fired intensely effective.
The crafty camera work also allows Russell to avoid a lot of exposition by using imagery to present his message. In one of the most effective scenes, a group of Iraqi soldiers guards a bruised and beaten prisoner while a television behind them shows the Rodney King beating.
Unfortunately, Three Kings is not perfect, and occasionally uses action movie clichés and conventions of Hollywood melodrama. Also, some of the jokes are tacked-on, which seems ill-advised in what is essentially a dramatic film. Still, it's got enough sense and subtlety to put it on the must-see list.