Notwithstanding the success of last year's "Saving Private Ryan," selling war movies in today's market is a decidedly tough task. While the Civil War occasionally rears up on the silver screen, WWI is noticeably less popular. Nearly every story regarding WWII has been told countless times before, while "M*A*S*H" is about the only film people associate with the Korean War. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was ripe for the picking and produced some great pictures in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but audiences soon tired of that "police action" genre.
Thus, if you're writer/director David O. Russell (the director of the critically acclaimed but barely seen films "Flirting With Disaster" and "Spanking the Monkey") and you want to make a war film, what do you do? After all, those previous battles are so removed from today's core moviegoing audience -- the twenty-something and under crowd -- that they might as well be about the French and Indian War instead of those that took place in remote locations such as Midway, Panmunjom or Saigon.
The answer is obvious -- you choose the war that everyone watched on TV during the early ‘90s -- the Gulf War. Since few really knew what that conflict was really about, however, you then hedge your bets by mixing in the basic plot from an old WWII flick that today's audience probably won't recognize. That movie, of course, was 1970's "Kelly's Heroes," a great war flick posing as a crime heist story that featured Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (among many others) trying to get behind enemy lines to steal gold from a German bank.
While this film initially appears to be nothing but a straightforward, but updated rip-off of that plot, it does veer into something more. The first picture set entirely during the Gulf War (1996's "Courage Under Fire" had flashbacks to the conflict, but took place in the "present"), Russell turns the piece into a comedy/action hybrid that then develops a strong dose of political commentary.
While the film -- somewhat incorrectly named for the Biblical allusion since there are four principals here and not three -- thankfully doesn't get quite as preachy as the later years of "M*A*S*H's" TV incarnation, such "touchy feely" moments do clash a bit with the action elements and thus don't always blend in with the rest of the film in a seamless fashion.
That said, the film in near constantly enthralling, due in part to the fact that you're never sure how things are going to unfold. Coupled with an interesting if eclectic mix of shooting styles, film stock and special effects, one never has the chance to lose interest in the story. This is despite the fact that it ultimately doesn't develop much beyond its simplistic and straightforward plot line that similarly doesn't offer much in the way of surprises.
The often haphazard visual approach, courtesy of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel ("Apt Pupil," "The Usual Suspects"), is obviously meant to impart varying moods and atmosphere into different scenes. While it may impress some moviegoers, it isn't always successful. For one, the effects -- including plenty of slow motion shots, jump cuts and blue screen effects -- seem like a combination of the more avant-garde material found in Oliver Stone's more heady productions and the frenetic, early work of Sam Raimi.
While most of such effects worked in those pictures, here they stand out a bit too much and draw undue attention to themselves. What else would explain the need to show an interior view of a human body as a bullet rips through it and bile comes pouring out?
While we appreciate the anti-violence message, films like "Saving Private Ryan" did the same so much more effectively and without stopping the story dead in its tracks to put on its show. Russell must have realized this at some point, though, as the film's second half has far fewer instances of such visually gratuitous showmanship.
For the style and type of story the film is trying to exude, the performances are generally okay, but far from outstanding. Having given up the scrubs on his "ER" gig, George Clooney ("Out of Sight," "The Peacemaker") continues his quest to join the "A" list of movie stars, but this isn't the vehicle or the performance to do that. Essentially just playing his typical action hero character, Clooney's rote performance may be wearing out its welcome with some viewers, but I still found myself enjoying his brand of action machismo.
Similarly playing a character -- the tough, but humorously vulnerable young man -- that's becoming too typical for him, Mark Wahlberg ("The Corruptor," "The Big Hit") doesn't reach the level of success he did in "Boogie Nights," but still delivers an enjoyable enough performance. The same holds true for Ice Cube ("Dangerous Ground," "Anaconda") as the token religious soldier and music video director-turned actor, Spike Jonze (the director of the upcoming "Being John Malkovich") as the somewhat dimwitted country boy turned weekend warrior.
Of the supporting performers, Nora Dunn ("Drop Dead Gorgeous," "Bulworth") gives a comical performance as the driven, but older field reporter with the mouth of a sailor, while Cliff Curtis ("Virus," "The Piano") inhabits probably the most richly drawn character the film has to offer (although that's not saying much).
The film is certain to elicit varying reactions from moviegoers. Some will like the non-traditional approach at storytelling, while others might find that jarring. That latter group may also see elements of other filmmakers influencing the proceedings (such as the Quentin Tarantino inspired bits of dialogue involving Wahlberg and Cube's characters arguing over nonsensical facts such as what type of car comes as a convertible) and the stupidity of some weekend warriors more irritating than funny (such as one of them wearing night-vision goggles during the day).
Whatever one's reaction to the film in an artistic sense, there's no denying that it is constantly engaging and mostly manages to hold one's interest throughout. Although certainly nothing great and clearly not even coming close to the enjoyment bar set by the similarly plotted "Kelly's Heroes," the film is an entertaining enough diversion to earn a passing grade. As such, we give "Three Kings" a 6 out of 10.