News

5 Reasons Why Three Kings Is the Best War Satire of the Last 20 Years

On its 20th anniversary, we look back at David O. Russell's eerily prescient heist movie, whose astute observations and moral complexity are just as relevant now as they were then.

by | October 1, 2019 | Comments

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

There were a handful of forgettable war-related films released in 1999: The General’s Daughter, All The King’s Men, the Robin Williams-starrer Jakob The Liar. And then there was Three Kings (Certified Fresh at 94%), part action comedy, part heist movie, and 20 years later, still holding up as one of the best — and most subversive — war films ever made.

Directed with adrenalized panache by David O. Russell (Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle), Three Kings followed on the heels of Steven Spielberg’s heroic 1998 WWII epic Saving Private Ryan, which canonized the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation. But Russell had no such patriotic flag to wave. Like Catch-22, Three Kings satirically probes the insanities of war; like Apocalypse Now, it revels in surreal set pieces and sharp visual juxtapositions; like M*A*S*H, it mixes black humor with moral complexity.

Its heroes are reluctant ones, soldiers who start out consumed by their own self-interest until forced by untenable circumstances to take a moral stand.


IT HAS A KILLER VISUAL LOOK

Inspired by color photos of the war that appeared in newspapers at the time, Russell and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Siegel, devised a saturated, blown-out look for the Iraqi desert (actually Arizona) in the film. They increased the contrast and graininess and bypassed the bleaching stage of the film process, giving the desert landscape a foreboding, surreal look, which set the visual template for other films about contemporary wars that followed. The Iraqi village was designed by production designer Catherine Hardwicke, who served the same role on films like Tombstone and Tank Girl and would go on to direct the first Twilight and Lords Of Dogtown.


IT MAKES ASTUTE POLITICAL POINTS WITHOUT BEING PREACHY

Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

Russell exposes the hypocrisy of American foreign policy in the Middle East and indicts the Bush Administration for its abandonment of anti-Saddam insurgents – whom the U.S. had encouraged to rise up against the Iraqi dictator – all without pedantic speeches or heavy-handed scenes. The soldiers who steal back the Kuwaiti gold from Saddam – George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze – spend the latter part of the film, at great risk to themselves, helping a group of insurgents reach the Iranian border, foreshadowing the refugee crisis of future wars to come.


IT HAS THE MOTHER OF ALL INTERROGATION SCENES

What’s a good war movie without at least one hard-to-watch interrogation scene? Most of these scenes tend to follow a simple formula: someone, usually a soldier, is captured behind enemy lines and tortured for information. But the scene between Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui as an Iraqi army officer and Mark Wahlberg as the captured American soldier gets up close and personal in a way few of these scenes manage to.

While the Iraqi does torture Wahlberg’s character with electric shocks, he’s no faceless sadist; our sympathies are engaged when we learn he’s lost his young son and daughter to American bombing raids. But the capper comes when Taghmaoui forces oil down Wahlberg’s throat, a searing indictment on what many felt was the real point of America’s intervention in Kuwait: to protect its oil reserves in the Middle East.


IT’S THE FIRST WAR FILM TO SHOW GRAPHICALLY WHAT A BULLET CAN DO TO THE HUMAN BODY

Russell was concerned about viewers being anesthetized to gun violence; his answer was to give the audience the uniquely visceral experience of how a bullet traumatizes the human body. In the scene, Clooney lectures his men: “What makes any gunshot wound bad, provided you survive the bullet, is something called sepsis. Say a bullet tears into you right now. It creates a cavity of dead tissue, the cavity fills up with bile and bacteria, and you’re f—ed.” As the soldiers listen, the camera tracks a bullet as it smashes into the body, tearing through flesh and filling the organs with bile.

While doing press for the film, Russell grew so irritated with a reporter’s questions that he made up a story about how the bullet scene was done using a real corpse. Needless to say, the studio did not find it funny.


IT TRANSFORMED GEORGE CLOONEY’S CAREER

In 1999, Clooney was still playing a doctor on NBC’s hit TV show E.R. After the disappointment of 1997’s Batman & Robin (11% on the Tomatometer), he was desperate for meatier roles in prestige projects.  In particular, he wanted the role of Three Kings’ disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gate (it didn’t hurt that Warner Bros., who produced Three Kings, also produced E.R.), but his relationship with Russell was volatile from the start. The weather on set in Arizona was hot, and the shoot proved to be chaotic. Clooney would often show up on set only to find that Russell had completely rewritten his scenes. As recounted on Slate.com, the two famously came to blows after Clooney objected to Russell physically manhandling an extra on the set.

Nevertheless, the film helped to cement Clooney as a leading man, as he jumped to starring roles in The Perfect Storm and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Late in Three Kings, after Jonze is killed and Wahlberg is wounded by a sniper, he even gets an E.R. moment, placing a flutter valve in Wahlberg’s chest to allow air to escape from a punctured lung.


Three Kings opened on October 1, 1999.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

#1

Three Kings (1999)
94%

#1
Adjusted Score: 99.638%
Critics Consensus: Three Kings successfully blends elements of action, drama, and comedy into a thoughtful, exciting movie on the Gulf War.
Synopsis: The Gulf War is over, and three soldiers want to go home rich. Major Archie Gates retires in two weeks.... [More]
Directed By: David O. Russell

Tag Cloud

CBS First Look canceled TV shows 2015 TCA natural history NYCC GLAAD Syfy binge harry potter Dark Horse Comics IFC Mary Poppins Returns kids OWN The CW docudrama renewed TV shows latino witnail screen actors guild USA USA Network Sony Pictures Rocketman dogs dramedy Disney Disney streaming service crossover Superheroe cops Video Games Reality Mindy Kaling Captain marvel name the review toy story TV renewals canceled Academy Awards franchise Musicals Spike 2019 theme song Netflix romance Tumblr Amazon Prime Video DC Universe Starz Amazon Studios Showtime miniseries Endgame Premiere Dates History BET independent X-Men Disney Channel Lifetime Christmas movies Superheroes game show tv talk vampires Mudbound slashers comiccon Infographic nature Winners cults Schedule DGA Adult Swim 71st Emmy Awards cars thriller FX on Hulu Binge Guide historical drama ABC Stephen King Awards 2017 Pride Month Best and Worst political drama Toys Mystery composers Grammys Paramount Network WGN HBO Masterpiece game of thrones supernatural revenge festivals New York Comic Con 45 Food Network GIFs boxoffice Creative Arts Emmys green book Britbox APB The Walking Dead directors Holidays LGBTQ award winner based on movie Super Bowl Calendar Sundance Apple TV+ indie Pirates comic elevated horror transformers dc reviews Turner Classic Movies YouTube FX Avengers The Purge Hulu sports facebook Brie Larson 24 frames FXX romantic comedy screenings cancelled finale TCA Winter 2020 Apple TV Plus blaxploitation CNN Lucasfilm Tarantino movies VICE 007 mutant RT History dceu CBS All Access Amazon Prime Turner Comedy PaleyFest cartoon richard e. Grant NBC Countdown police drama Film Trivia social media TV Red Carpet cooking zombie blockbuster American Society of Cinematographers Walt Disney Pictures Horror GoT A&E Netflix Christmas movies Fox News video cinemax OneApp 2018 psycho Family Trailer National Geographic strong female leads Fantasy ITV DC streaming service biography Crackle travel Christmas zero dark thirty Cosplay Pixar TIFF AMC Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Lionsgate Oscars Ellie Kemper quibi Martial Arts werewolf Pop TV series TV Land Star Wars VH1 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dragons Peacock movie serial killer SundanceTV SXSW IFC Films talk show science fiction Sneak Peek Esquire Extras ratings Sundance Now batman Fall TV Heroines joker Cannes The Arrangement Star Trek Valentine's Day TLC Discovery Channel Amazon Acorn TV space technology Ovation SDCC spinoff cancelled TV shows MTV Shondaland crime halloween casting TBS cancelled television disaster Biopics Certified Fresh Character Guide Pet Sematary Writers Guild of America CMT Polls and Games war golden globes Music Spectrum Originals Marathons Reality Competition television Watching Series Marvel TCM spain San Diego Comic-Con south america period drama Pop Year in Review First Reviews sitcom El Rey Trophy Talk rotten movies we love Sundance TV ESPN ABC Family Emmy Nominations TCA 2017 universal monsters stand-up comedy hispanic DirecTV Vudu ghosts true crime Hallmark Christmas movies adaptation singing competition Musical Disney Plus Marvel Television Winter TV doctor who Film Festival children's TV Photos YouTube Red Travel Channel robots sequel 21st Century Fox Black Mirror versus Action aliens PBS Western Tomatazos Freeform animated Columbia Pictures See It Skip It Black History Month Anna Paquin teaser Comic Book Opinion reboot cats mockumentary spanish language free movies sag awards jamie lee curtis Television Academy TruTV Tubi Holiday Interview medical drama christmas movies Rocky Mary Tyler Moore Arrowverse Summer justice league Song of Ice and Fire Kids & Family Nominations psychological thriller Nickelodeon Election LGBT Mary poppins Classic Film anthology foreign what to watch Epix The Witch Rom-Com zombies Box Office Lifetime crime thriller YA spy thriller CW Seed Comics on TV MSNBC breaking bad scary movies Set visit Paramount comics RT21 Country BBC streaming E! Chernobyl Baby Yoda Teen book President Sci-Fi politics WarnerMedia Drama Thanksgiving MCU crime drama 2020 cancelled TV series Disney+ Disney Plus Crunchyroll Cartoon Network hist Awards Tour adventure Bravo Ghostbusters Podcast spider-man Emmys 2016 Logo documentary Elton John Marvel Studios Funimation TNT A24 YouTube Premium Spring TV discovery DC Comics anime Women's History Month Quiz HBO Max Nat Geo Shudder Comedy Central Rock Hallmark Apple diversity Warner Bros. Universal Animation FOX unscripted BBC America E3 20th Century Fox