Written and directed by David O. Russell

All the leads bring forth their strengths for Three Kings as well. Clooney is ideal as a gruff special-forces officer, his features looking all the more chiseled in the harsh desert light. Ice Cube expands his horizons yet again as Chief, the spiritual conscience of the group. (Amazingly, when he blows up the aforementioned helicopter, he does not follow the explosion with a clever quip! Perhaps we're finally getting somewhere.) Wahlberg is by turns excessively charming and melodramatic, as is his character, so this plays fine. Also, as television-news correspondent and five-time Emmy runner-up Adrianna Cruz, comedienne Nora Dunn generates enough humor and pathos to keep an entire subplot alive about the role of the media in wartime.

The only unfortunate work here is the acting debut of manic video and commercial director Spike Jonze (soon to release his first feature, Being John Malkovich). Though Jonze is energetic and often very funny, the character he inhabits is a moronic cartoon, a stereotypical redneck who might as well be called Skeeter. He provides ample comic relief, yes, but it's a bit like having Scooby Doo in the battalion.

Distracting us from this exaggeration are Russell's manic direction (an impressive evolution from Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster), Catherine Hardwicke's grungy production design (her practice on Tank Girl obviously sharpened her for this), Newton Thomas Sigel's feverish cinematography (Fallen and Apt Pupil), and Robert Lambert's bang-bang editing (Above the Law, Sorcerer). Combined, these elements produce a heady brew of bleached and oversaturated desertscapes, cavernous alien dungeons and pulse-popping rhythm. (Those who were disappointed by the sweeter, sillier return to George Lucas' Tatooine in The Phantom Menace may find their funky, dangerous desert fix here.)

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

It's ultimately futile to compare Three Kings to the genre material on which it riffs. Forget its wannabe side, begging for attention with pyrotechnics. Ignore its ridiculously tidy setup and conclusion. Likening this movie to a new, experimental document is far wiser. Look closely, below the posturing and fireworks, for something is twitching down there. Entering a new era of cinematic and cultural potential may not have been Russell's plan, but he's doing it here. Scoping the changing climates around him, he has delivered a touching yet demanding story. Not everyone will notice or appreciate this. Even those who do may not receive the movie's two subliminal suggestions, namely: Exult in the medium's ever-expanding spectrum of emotion, and despair that it takes so much gleeful violence to access sentiments so human.

Opens Oct. 1.

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