Though its subject matter was a risky endeavor, Three Kings has the surprise visceral impact of a scud missile fired at close range. Director David O. Russell attacked a subject with dubious luster, possibly better suited to the topical realm of TV movies, and crafted one of the more visually arresting films of 1999. Russell's bag of tricks includes following a bullet into a human abdomen, sight and sound distortion during battlefield chaos, a POV of a dazed soldier watching his own life being saved, and the kind of gritty film stock that brings each individual fleck of sand into focus. Accompanying these is an equally offbeat perspective on what made the war such a disjointed and foreign experience for those involved: they may as well have been on Mars. "Are we shooting people or what?" yells Mark Wahlberg's Troy Barlow during the film's tone-setting opener, as a tired Iraqi on a nearby hill waves his weapon half-heartedly, with ambiguous intent. Barlow rips the guy's throat open with a slug, for lack of any guiding policy, either moral or military. Barlow and his eventual band of marauders, including (George Clooney, Ice Cube and, in a memorable acting breakthrough, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze), only put a human face on these Iraqis when they stumble into a civil strife in which a woman is brutally executed. For all the humor of the absurd vignettes that propel the film, Three Kings also taps into a shock wave of human emotion -- guaranteeing that it will linger in the viewer's consciousness far longer than that forgotten conflict in the desert.
by Derek Armstrong review