Written and directed by David O. Russell

There is nothing gratifying about watching a bullet blast through a woman's skull. Exploding helicopters and splattered cattle are utterly indefensible. And few would smile at the image of a little boy being obliterated by a flashy missile. So why is David O. Russell's Three Kings such rousing entertainment?

This is not a question with an easy answer, because, fortunately, Russell has written and directed a nifty little war movie that defies convenient categorization. Based on a story by John Ridley and 18 months of post-Gulf War research by Russell, this tale of mercenaries and morality summons common expectations of the genre only to skewer them. The criticism lately leveled against a certain veteran director applies equally well here — that violence and viscera needn't be celebrated graphically to make an effective movie — but Russell counterbalances his gratuitous wankery with doses of irreverent wit. The result is a war movie less opposed to war than to dull, crusty philosophies. World War II? Been there. Vietnam? Done that. Really, is there anything left to say about nationalist valor or disillusioned rage? Three Kings makes its bid on new ideological turf by giddily dissecting the essence of fighting itself.

Of course, this isn't so much a war story as a politically charged fiction, an adventure set immediately after the Gulf War. It is March 1991, and George Bush's high-tech Desert Storm has left a squadron of American troops restless in the Iraqi desert. Archie Gates (George Clooney) is a divorced and cynical Green Beret who's not above a little slap and tickle to pass the two weeks before his voluntary retirement. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is a resolute Christian, an airport baggage handler whose tour of duty reveals the resiliency of his personal creed. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a new father and doting husband whose patriotism is paralleled by his urge to party. Aided by Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a white-trash caricature who, curiously, idolizes Barlow, the men set upon their quest: Barlow and Vig have discovered a map between the buttocks of a stripped, surrendered Iraqi soldier. Elgin and Gates stumble onto their clandestine meeting, and the four decide to seek a stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion.

Fadil Al-Badra, Ice Cube, George Clooney and Cliff Curtis in Three Kings, a nifty little war movie that defies convenient categorization
Fadil Al-Badra, Ice Cube, George Clooney and Cliff Curtis in Three Kings, a nifty little war movie that defies convenient categorization

"What is the most important thing in life?" Gates asks his subordinates after their treasure hunt's first near-miss. They've whetted their appetites for excitement by this point, skeet-shooting Nerf footballs from their speeding Humvee and blasting American classic rock (à la Apocalypse Now, in this case the Beach Boys' "I Get Around"). They've met oppressed Iraqi civilians and a few of Saddam Hussein's troops face-to-face, so the complexity of their original back-before-lunch plan is starting to dawn on them. The younger men make their guesses: "Respect?" "Love?" "God's will?" Gates, a pragmatic sort of guy, tells them the answer is necessity. In this case, that means that what is most necessary to Hussein's troops is to put down the civilian uprising. Therefore the temporarily AWOL Americans are free to plunder the booty without interruption.

Or so they think. As Three Kings unfolds, these men find themselves spiraling into complications they never anticipated. Traveling from bunker to village, mosque to minaret, they discover that, despite the recent official cease-fire, their self-serving mission may become painful and messy. What starts out as simple Yankee greed quickly escalates into the bloody stuff of battle. Caught between the civilians, who provoke their empathy (and, eventually, solidarity), and the Iraqi army, who have the sheer nerve to fight back when their posts are invaded, these soldiers of fortune learn a lot more than they bargained for about the culture of the land they've been parking on and bombing.

As a truly surprising breath of fresh air, so do we. Though countless standard-issue Hollywood racial slurs are hurled against the Arabs near the beginning of the movie, these serve primarily to illustrate the ignorance of the characters who spout them. Once the smug comfort of their base camp is stripped away, the foreign soldiers start meeting the natives eye-to-eye. For the project, dialects, religious motifs, cultural icons and general behavior were overseen by a team of Iraqi advisors, including Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini (a religious leader), Sermid Al-Sarraf (an attorney), and Al No'mani (an actor and filmmaker). The contributions of these men cannot be underestimated; many Americans (and American producers) would be all too happy to doom the Iraqis to being this generation's version of the Axis, the "Reds" or "Charlie." By bringing forth subtlety and vast diversity — not only between the U.S. and Iraq but within Iraq itself — these men have made a major contribution to mainstream American cinema.

Acting as a sort of lightning rod for much of this cross-cultural illumination is Amir, leader of an Iraqi rebellion, played without a wink of irony by native New Zealander Cliff Curtis (The Piano, Insider). Amir, once an entrepreneur, has lost everything to Hussein's army but his daughter and his hope, and, once the matter of the gold is sorted out fairly, he joins the heroes for an exodus to freedom. Though it is certainly strange for Curtis to be playing a Middle Easterner, his conviction as Amir is beyond reproach.

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