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: 99.61%
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

RT21 Adult Swim Pop TV natural history Apple italian singing competition Amazon Prime laika political drama tv talk politics a nightmare on elm street YouTube Red Box Office Podcast Disney Plus SDCC cults San Diego Comic-Con Sci-Fi book movies ABC versus Emmys transformers cars PaleyFest Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Disney Channel BBC One TV renewals elevated horror latino Summer Trivia war worst movies aliens Superheroe talk show psychological thriller scary movies Quiz cancelled TV series Thanksgiving Disney+ Disney Plus australia Masterpiece TV Land 2016 Syfy reboot Esquire Paramount Tomatazos anime Pride Month revenge Pet Sematary fast and furious Freeform travel cartoon Logo FXX Superheroes series parents Film Festival First Look Netflix Christmas movies criterion chucky Sundance TV Interview LGBTQ dceu Marathons Mystery stand-up comedy Cartoon Network Disney streaming service french Arrowverse nature Song of Ice and Fire ghosts Sundance Now doctor who Marvel HBO Go The Arrangement nfl Mudbound Biopics Epix science fiction The Witch VH1 mission: impossible docudrama supernatural Lifetime reviews VOD TBS Election documentary 2019 Lucasfilm National Geographic Rocketman Baby Yoda twilight Star Trek Holidays adaptation Musical HBO Max RT History Trophy Talk Holiday Best and Worst Rock mockumentary Western TCA Awards Kids & Family IFC thriller Shudder quibi Ghostbusters 2020 Set visit Women's History Month Disney classics Lifetime Christmas movies sequels historical drama football foreign period drama Photos festival Crunchyroll facebook police drama MCU spain spanish language comiccon emmy awards Warner Bros. Amazon Discovery Channel sitcom Ellie Kemper teaser Crackle Video Games biography blockbuster Academy Awards Apple TV Plus Spectrum Originals A24 2015 E! ESPN rotten toy story CW Seed diversity Television Academy nbcuniversal strong female leads Nickelodeon cooking movie sequel Schedule Sundance comics Sneak Peek medical drama TCA Winter 2020 History canceled game show south america halloween tv Fox News dark adventure harry potter witnail cancelled television what to watch technology critics free movies 007 spy thriller Oscars Rom-Com Drama 45 OWN Reality Competition Certified Fresh 71st Emmy Awards Christmas CBS Martial Arts zombie Comics on TV TCA Dark Horse Comics crime drama christmas movies ABC Family 4/20 video on demand Turner Classic Movies spanish Netflix DirecTV Trailer unscripted Super Bowl Horror archives remakes 72 Emmy Awards crime thriller 2017 Grammys Columbia Pictures Tubi robots 21st Century Fox Country cats true crime USA Network festivals all-time YA YouTube Shondaland Walt Disney Pictures APB Amazon Studios vampires Spring TV Musicals cancelled TV shows jamie lee curtis composers Bravo NYCC Fall TV CBS All Access golden globes Pop psycho Vudu Funimation Turner children's TV indiana jones die hard spider-man Hulu comedies E3 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Cannes mutant Comic Book Marvel Studios Elton John miniseries Action Binge Guide GoT animated Classic Film The CW green book indie disaster BET Awards Character Guide Year in Review news DGA NBC Pirates werewolf GIFs finale Winter TV Toys anthology HBO SXSW Nominations BAFTA romantic comedy Mary Tyler Moore SundanceTV FX dc PlayStation cops TIFF Fox Searchlight best Extras Watching Series Infographic boxoffice DC Universe The Walking Dead worst documentaries First Reviews Red Carpet Mary Poppins Returns japanese GLAAD satire Travel Channel Valentine's Day films TLC video CMT space blaxploitation FOX FX on Hulu crossover universal monsters kids Star Wars IFC Films Animation scorecard Hear Us Out Starz toronto Television Critics Association BBC America Apple TV+ stop motion LGBT Nat Geo breaking bad ratings Ovation zero dark thirty Reality BBC TCA 2017 Endgame venice MTV MSNBC Film Pixar Creative Arts Emmys AMC Awards Black Mirror Family dragons Polls and Games television The Academy Avengers VICE Heroines batman asian-american 20th Century Fox canceled TV shows President Sony Pictures theme song comic Stephen King Music WGN Opinion Calendar sports sag awards Anna Paquin Paramount Network OneApp romance Universal See It Skip It richard e. Grant Emmy Nominations YouTube Premium cinemax DC streaming service Winners Amazon Prime Video Tumblr casting Comedy Central 2018 hollywood child's play concert Chernobyl halloween New York Comic Con Brie Larson screenings Black History Month American Society of Cinematographers justice league hispanic Food Network Teen obituary Fantasy TCM dogs stoner Countdown dramedy 24 frames Premiere Dates DC Comics PBS franchise Rocky hist spinoff discovery CNN Spike BET crime Showtime award winner Mindy Kaling Hallmark Christmas movies Tarantino Peacock streaming independent The Purge Writers Guild of America Captain marvel social media El Rey based on movie rotten movies we love ITV Hallmark renewed TV shows Comedy joker Awards Tour superhero binge cancelled X-Men TV Mary poppins A&E Marvel Television TNT name the review USA Cosplay Lionsgate game of thrones WarnerMedia slashers zombies Britbox directors Acorn TV TruTV serial killer screen actors guild