David O. Russell is not the most profilic director -- the recently released 'The Fighter' is only his fifth feature since his 1994 debut 'Spanking the Monkey' -- but each of his highly original films has been uniquely memorable.
'The Fighter,' his most conventional effort to date, is his third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, the first being 1999's 'Three Kings.' That film, based on a story by John Ridley, not only cemented Russell's rep as a fearlessly inventive director, but validated George Clooney as a serious lead, confirmed Wahlberg as a true actor (i.e. 'Boogie Nights' was no fluke), gave Ice Cube a role he seemed particularly comfortable in, and featured Spike Jonze, who would soon become renowned as a wildly inventive director himself.
A hilarious, poignant, violent, action-packed, combat thriller/heist flick set in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, 'Three Kings' was Russell's unexpectedly potent follow-up to off-kilter road-trip comedy 'Flirting with Disaster' (1996). His previous film, 'Spanking the Monkey,' was a dark, equally offbeat film marketed as a comedy but actually a quirky drama that took on the queasy subject of incest.
In retrospect, 'Three Kings' is a bittersweet, almost quaint reminder of a time before 9/11 and the current Iraq War, back when American forces fought in the Gulf for less than a year, with relatively few casualties. The story takes place in 1991, on the heels of the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's invading army. Amid victory celebrations and general chaos, a map of Saddam's bunkers, supposedly containing stolen Kuwaiti gold, is found in an Iraqi soldier's butt. Four Americans -- Major Archie Gates (Clooney), Sergeant Troy Barlow (Wahlberg), Private Conrad Vig (Jones) and Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Cube) -- decide to pursue the fortune.
At first, the movie's irreverent tone seems almost callous. When a confused Barlow accidentally kills a surrenduring Iraqi, dim redneck Vig is happy to see a "towelhead" shot up close. As we're introduced to various characters, including a hardbitten TV journalist played by Nora Dunn, via fast, witty dialogue and equally adrenalizing music, the only one who seems to have a conscience is the Jesus-loving Elgin.
As confusion mounts for both the Americans and Iraqis, mainly about who exactly is in charge, the four mercenaries try to keep their eye on the prize, but they keep coming up against desperate civilians. Encouraged by President Bush to rise up against Saddam, these rebels, including women and children, now face slaughter from the still-in-power regime. After a particularly horrific murder of a civilian, Gates decides to help a group led by the American-educated Amir (Cliff Curtis). Gradually, the previously disengaged soldiers become more sympathetic to the Iraqis' plight.
There's an intense, tear-gas infused scuffle with Saddam's army, during which Barlow rescues two frightened children from a minefield and is captured for his pains. Thrown into a bunker, he finds a box of cell phones among the collected loot and frantically tries to call the Army Reserve center, reaching an unhelpful local operator. Frustrated, he calls his wife (Liz Stauber) back home.
Their initial conversation is a mundane, almost perverse reminder of domestic normalcy. She's thrilled to hear from him, has no idea that he's in danger, and he doesn't immediately let on -- though he needs her to report his position -- affectionately using their silly mutual pet name. As she chats about setting up a job interview, he gets increasingly panicky; she finally catches on just as a bunker wall explodes. ("I thought the war was over, honey!" "Well, it is and it isn't, baby.") They're still frantically talking as Barlow's captors break in and drag him out. (Warning: R-rated language):
It's a funny, suspenseful and touching scene that wouldn't work in any conventional war movie. Barlow goes on to endure a harrowing interrogation at the hands of an enraged, grieving Iraqi officer (the great Saïd Taghmaoui). But the more pain Barlow experiences, the more compassionate he becomes. Wahlberg's performance is wonderfully open and human, but Clooney is equally impressive, exhibiting a steely gravitas that would characterize many future roles.
The scene and movie in general are exhilarating and thought-provoking, a great example of Russell's singular vision and the terrific performances that he demands from his actors.