Operation desert scam

Profits vs. politics in the Persian Gulf War.

WHAT IF THEY GAVE a war and nobody watched? It's March 1991, mop-up time in Iraq, after the US has kicked some serious"towel head" ass. Nice-guy G.I. Mark Wahlberg wonders, "Are we shooting people now or what?" A cease-fire's been declared, and his confusion is understandable: Christiane Amanpour-like TV reporter Nora Dunn, standing nearby, declares our national Vietnam syndrome to be over, and Iraqi troops are surrendering by the busload, but Wahlberg's dumb hick buddy, played by video director Spike Jonze, complains that the only action he saw was on CNN.

THREE KINGS

directed by David O. Russell

opens September 30 at Metro, others

starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg

That disconnect between the viewing public and the blood, sand, and oil at stake in the Persian Gulf War is the angry, accusatory subject of writer-director David O. Russell's third film—though it purports to be a simple heist caper set behind enemy lines. Coming from the creator of 1994's Spanking the Monkey and the wildly imaginative 1996 comedy Flirting With Disaster, this is a disappointing career turn that starts out as a MASH-style military romp and ends up a conventional feel-good cop-out.

Don't blame George Clooney for enlisting in the effort; he handles every scene with commanding assurance, showing what he might've brought to The Thin Red Line had he been given more than a one-scene cameo. Here he's a cynical officer, close to retirement and looking to pad his IRA, assigned to keeping the media away from the front. The financial opportunity comes when Wahlberg discovers "my Iraqi-ass map" hidden in the body of a prisoner; he orders Jonze to retrieve it. "That's how the chain of command works," he explains.

Naturally, it's a treasure map, leading to a bunker full of stolen Kuwaiti gold bars that Clooney intends to commandeer. It'll be just "enough to get us out of our day jobs," he explains to his cohorts (who also include rapper-director Ice Cube). Director Russell then flashes back to their respective stateside day jobs—Jonze's very lack of an occupation being the highlight—to make his point and establish an enjoyably goofy early tone. This identification of the four as a squad of misfits hoping for one big score amid the chaotic aftermath of war recalls the 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle Kelly's Heroes.

OUT ON THE SANDS, things take a very wrong turn. Clooney's plan to grab the gold without a shot runs into the ugly political realities of the Gulf War. Iraqi troops don't particularly mind the treasure hunters—"You are looking for chemical weapons?" one asks helpfully—provided they don't aid the citizen uprising in progress. Meanwhile, a rebel chides Clooney, "We're fighting Saddam and dying, and you're stealing gold." He explains that "Bush leaves us twisting in the wind" after encouraging their insurrection. Thereafter, our heroes' moral quandary—boost the gold or help the rebels?—plays out just as simplistically as it sounds.

Humanitarianism predictably winning out over greedy self-interest doesn't have a lot of drama—nor much comedy, either. Early on, Russell does manage to write a few genuinely funny, unpredictable scenes, as when battle-hardened Dunn views a pond of dying, oil-choked pelicans and states disgustedly, "This story has been so done." But Russell's strength lies in details and digression, not straightforward storytelling. Here he feels shackled to someone else's original idea (which he rewrote), overburdened by seriousness and the need to deliver a scathing indictment of US foreign policy. But just because we didn't hear such Gulf War criticism at the time—on TV, at least—doesn't make it any fresher today; his outrage is too late, and his story too little.

Otherwise, Russell uses his budget to try out camera tricks and different film stocks, resulting in a few nicely staged action scenes and some grainy, distorted colors. But Three Kings never rises to the comic or satiric level of Wag the Dog, and its happy postscripts conveniently omit the supposed moral crux of the film. Who would've thought such an inventive filmmaker, working in the vastness of the desert, would run out of room to explore?

 
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