Three Kings (1999)

Treasure is something that a lot of people would like to find. That’s where the childhood fascination with rainbows comes from; as kids, we desire the gold at the end of it. Now imagine getting the opportunity to take millions of dollars with minimal risk because the people you’re stealing from don’t have the authority to fight back. There’s the basic idea of Three Kings.

Our setting is the Gulf War, or, more correctly, the tail end of it. A truce has been called, and Americans are currently cleaning up the mess, while also taking the chance to goof around a bunch. One man tries to surrender, but is shot in the neck. It’s an accident, but the shooter is congratulated regardless because, well, he shot a man in the neck from an estimated 400 paces. Why wouldn’t you want to celebrate that? A massive party ensues, but is quickly broken up by the leader of the military group. After all, they’re escorting more prisoners the next day.

During the party, we meet our characters. We’re told a quick detail about them thanks to some text that appears while we freeze-frame at an opportune moment. That man who got that great shot is named Troy (Mark Wahlberg), while the man next to him is called Vig (Spike Jonze), who “wants to be Troy.” We also meet Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), a smart man who takes his job and his religion seriously. The next day, while taking these prisoners, they encounter a man who is unwilling to strip naked. He’s hiding something between his lower cheeks. They take the piece, and Vig is forced to open it up. It’s a map. Can you say “let’s go on a treasure hunt”?

They need a leader though. Enter George Clooney as Major Archie Gates. We find out through text that he’s retiring soon, although that’s later reinforced through dialogue. He finds the men trying to analyze the map, and on a whim, decides that the four of them will try to find the treasure, which they determine is gold. So, we head out across the mine-filled desert in order to get enough gold so that these four men can quit their day jobs.

Do you expect things to go as planned? They do, although they wind up disappointed in that area. I’ll leave you to find out exactly what happens, but suffice to say that a small skirmish breaks out, a couple of people are shot, one is captured leading to both a humorous and also quite depraved torture scene, and a rescue mission has to be attempted. It’s exciting, inventive, has a message about American foreign policy, and also held my interest for the entire time it was playing.

Let’s discuss this torture scene. I don’t want to give away which of our cast members gets captured, but the main torturer is played by Saïd Taghmaoui (his character’s name is also “Saïd”). The torturer speaks English in such a way that you’d expect him to be a surfer from Hawaii. He ends most sentences with “dude” or “my man” while is hilarious but that’s not the only part of this scene that’s funny. At one point, he asks the captured man “What’s the deal with Michael Jackson?”, although we are all questioning what that means. You laugh as he repeats it, but then the scene gets darker and ends slickly — with oil. You’ll understand when you watch it.

That’s about how the entire film goes. It starts out quite lighthearted, but it turns dark around the middle point and never gets back to the same form of levity that it had in the beginning. That is, until the ending, which felt tacked-on just to appease the studios so that the film could be made at all. We get a small epilogue that ends with similar text to what we got in the introduction, and while it’s kind of funny, I didn’t think it completely fit.

When I say “rescue mission” earlier, I don’t just mean it’s about saving the lost squadmate. No, this film has its protagonists learning about the Iraqis that constantly surround them, and as they learn about them, they begin to care about them. One could argue that this is a mistake — in fact, this is one of the reasons their theft doesn’t go according to plan the first time — but seeing the characters grow both helps the film and also allows it to get its message across near the end.

It also means that the action scenes have more weight to them. We care whenever people are getting shot at, and we want to see the captured member get rescued — and we also don’t want anyone to die in the rescue attempt. The action scenes are also well choreographed even if they’re not on as large of a scale as you might expect. That’s not a criticism, because it helps the film stay grounded, but it is worth mention so that you don’t go in expecting a massive action film with grand shootout scenes, as you’ll be disappointed.

Three Kings does a good job of mixing humor with drama and action. It’s a trifecta, just like its title suggests, and while there are four lead characters, maybe the title was referring to these elements that make up the film. Regardless, it does all of them well and is most definitely worth the time it takes to watch it. However, I was disappointed with the fact that I never got an answer to the question “What’s the deal with Michael Jackson?” I guess it doesn’t matter now.

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