George Clooney's latest shoot-'em-up flick, offers little more than a romp through the desert. The film's message about the struggle between greed and compassion is crudely drawn and cloying.
Writer-director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster) does have a knack for pacing and building intensity, which is leavened by several very funny scenes. Flashy cinematography and special effects coat the movie with an undeniable sheen of cool: candy -colored internal organs and a heady slow-motion gun fight.
The tale centers on three U.S. soldiers - Special Forces veteran Archie Gates (Clooney), cool young dude Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and the religious stoic Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) - who decide to steal some gold from Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War, in a renegade mission planned as a morning excursion.
Like Gilligan's fateful three-hour tour, it's never that simple. The trio, accompanied by sidekick Conrad Vig (Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze), encounter bigger and bigger obstacles, not the least of which is the ethical dilemma of ignoring Iraqi civilians who seek their help.
The film begins well, with sly digs at Americans' racist attitudes toward Arabs. Vig is told not to use terms like "dune coon" and "sand nigger." "Towel head" and "camel jockey" are the acceptable slurs.
But long after we get the point, the lesson continues. Heavy-handed scenes between Barlow and Iraqi Captain Sa'id (Said Taghmaoui) pound home the message that Arabs are human too. Naturally, this experience transforms Barlow and teaches him to value life, rejecting the senseless violence he demonstrates in the movie's opening scene. From here, the film veers into absurdity. There's lots of aimless running through mine fields amid clouds of tear gas, with remarkable little damage. Not to mention, how could millions in gold bullion really remain secret? That's just a little bit too much to fit under their army-issue mattresses.
Russell highlights the leakage of American culture to the third world, with luxury cars, blue jeans, coffee makers and rap music in the middle of the desert. The underground bunker that stores the gold is an updated version of Aladdin's cave: well-lit with modern suitcases carrying the treasure. The name George Bush holds great power - Gates holds a letter signed by Bush in front of him like a shield when he's kicking down doors.
Bush isn't around any more, and this film carries little more weight than a letter. Three Kings is sort of like the Gulf War: engaging while it's going on, but quickly forgotten.