green bile, dark blood, convulsing pink tissue. A close-up shot following a
bullet's path into and through internal organs is a frankly terrible image. In
most war movies, bullets do tend to fly. But you only see their external
effects: blood spurts, faces contort, handheld cameras zig and zag,
explosions-effects create aestheticized, often slo-mo, chaos. In David O.
Russell's 3 Kings, however, you see the insides: the bullet rushes
forward, stops, lodging in mangled, throbbing flesh while fluids accumulate.
It's visceral and immediate. It's surreal and nasty.
is not your typical war movie. Set at the end of the Gulf War, March 1991, 3
Kings takes an unusual step for a Hollywood flick: it critiques U.S. policy
outright: it makes the well-known observation that the war wasn't about freeing
Kuwait, but about oil, and it also argues that the Bush Administration abandoned
the Iraqi dissidents that it had promised to protect, if only they stood up
against Saddam. It shows you the results of this post-war betrayal, graphically:
while Saddam's men torture and kill the rebels, U.S. troops are ordered to look
the other way.
the movie invites you to look exactly at the damage done. It shows abuses and
murders, and U.S. soldiers who are bored and confused. They're used to waiting,
for orders, action, something to do. Now the waiting seems to be over: the war
has been "won" by smart bombs and video-game-like technologies. With
their "mission" deemed accomplished, the soldiers might wonder what
the hell they're doing here. They're regular people in an extraordinary
situation, not particularly honorable or motivated, they weren't saving anyone's
son. Mostly working-class and undereducated, they're suddenly touted as heroes.
But they're also about to return to a mundane stateside reality, where, after
the parades, they'll be selling cars or working in supermarkets.
first scene takes place in the Iraqi desert, where an Army squad is caught by
the good news, mid-patrol. Traipsing over the hard, dry terrain is Sergeant Troy
Barlow (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg), on patrol with his buddy Private Conrad Vig
(Spike Jonze, until now best known as the director who made the legendarily
clever videos for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and Weezer's
"Buddy Holly"). They spot an Iraqi soldier in the distance: he seems
to be waving a white flag and carrying a gun. Troy yells out, "Are we
shooting people or what?" No one seems to know. Boom! Troy shoots anyway.
The Iraqi's head explodes. "Congratulations, my man," his buddy
exults. "You shot yourself a rag-head!" The guys run up to get a
picture, and Troy is captured in the snapshot, horrified by the leaking blood
and exposed brains, forever grimacing.
first few minutes are irreverent and compelling, reminiscent of Kubrick's
relentlessly brutal Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket. At its
best -- which is often -- the film insists on the absurdity and awfulness of the
war, the U.S. racism that drives it, the U.S. sense of imperialism that allows
it. Throughout, various film and videostocks, fast cuts, jumpy angles, and
bizarre images convey the absolute mayhem confronting the soldiers. They're
afraid but unable to show it, angry but desperate to believe they've done a good
at the base, they celebrate the supposed victory. They party like madmen, waving
their weapons, dancing on tanks and tables, f*cking anyone they can. The camera
freezes each protagonist in mid-antic, and he's named and defined in a phrase:
Troy is "a new father," Conrad never finished high school and
"wants to be Troy Barlow," Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is an airport
baggage handler, "on a four month paid vacation from Detroit," and
Green Beret Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), who has until now made the
Army his career, is scheduled to retire in two weeks.
plot kicks in when these guys find a map (tellingly, in an enemy soldier's ass)
that shows the way to a stash of gold bullion that Saddam has stolen from
Kuwait. Determined to leave the Gulf with something to show for their troubles,
they "borrow" a Humvee and head off down the road to the village on
the map. At their destination, however, the four run into a little snag,
morality-wise: they see Royal Guard soldiers mutilating and slaughtering Iraqi
rebels (including children). Distracted by these life-and-death matters, they
all ignore the U.S. soldiers who are walking off with suitcases full of gold.
first, this seems cool: how easy it is to plunder! But the dilemma is
unavoidable (it is a movie, after all). Archie sees it first. He and his men are
about to be rich beyond their wildest dreams. But here are people being killed.
Pausing before he gets in the Humvee, Archie considers their situation: he's
admonished his men to not get involved or fire their weapons (it's his
description of bullet damage that inspires the earlier bile imagery), but now
he's wondering whether they should help the refugees, even save their lives. The
Guard shoots a woman in the head: she falls, her daughter wails. The decision is
made. Archie aims his gun at one of the bad guys. Someone shoots someone else.
Bullets fly. Bodies crumple. And once again you're looking at that yucky
bile-and-tissue business, ER or the Operation Channel with a beat.
moment marks a shift in priorities and perceptions, a choice made. As reluctant
and distrustful as they may be, these guys will become heroes. When the smoke
clears, they hurry the refugees into vehicles and speed off down the road. But
the dilemma remains more complicated than even this burst of action implies. The
line between the bad guys (the Royal Guard) and the good guys (U.S. liberators)
is blurry. It's a tricky business, war. Earlier, Chief has argued that Conrad
can't call the enemy "sand nigger," but "towel-head" is
okay. It's a dreadful line to draw, for Chief, but he understands: the war can't
run without racism (the kids can't kill people unless they see them as less than
people), but the specific parameters are always shifting. Here, the rebel
woman's murder has obliterated their previous reality. Now they have to come up
with a new one.
of the most upsetting and incisive instances of this new reality comes when Troy
is captured by the Guard and tortured by a young captain, Said (Said Taghmaoui,
whom you may remember as a character named Said in Mathieu Kassovoitz's La
Haine). Said attaches electrodes to Troy's head, then begins his
interrogation by asking, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?"
Troy doesn't get it: he offers the standard U.S. answer, that the King of Pop is
crazy, an individual with problems. But Said knows better: "He's Pop King
of sick f*cking country," he says, a country that "makes the black man
hate himself." Troy is bewildered, he doesn't know what to say. Said's men
throw the switch and Troy spasms. His face goes red and dark, his teeth grind,
his veins pop out. It's harrowing. Even Said winces.
with feeling, the line between right and wrong is obscured. Said has lost a
child to U.S. bombs. Troy imagines his young wife and newborn child being ripped
apart by a bomb. The advanced technologies of this war suddenly seem useless.
U.S. capitalism, however, has affected Iraqis in a way that the Americans could
not have imagined: the bunker where Troy is tortured is piled high with cell
phones, designer jeans, Rolex watches, exercise bikes, and TVs (replaying the
Rodney King beating over and over, just like back in the States). This massive
array of goods makes clear that whatever ideological war might have been waged
by the Bush Administration (and others before and after), the reality is that
opponents of the U.S. take what they can use, and f*ck the rest.
yet, the regular plot proceeds apace: Archie, Chief, and Conrad (now working
with the refugees, in exchange for a promised escort to the Iranian border) come
up with a plan to rescue their man. The movie has to conclude somehow, it has to
extricate itself from its messy dilemma, re-establish your sympathies for the
protagonists through heroic feats and requisite tragedies. It imagines that
motivated individuals can overcome practical but inane policies and that the
press -- selfless and brave -- can have an effect on military outcomes. Until it
offers this uplifting resolution, 3 Kings is conflicted and harsh. This
makes it a remarkable thing, a war movie that's both exhilarating and hard to
watch, a movie that might make you reconsider what you think you know.