David O. Russell
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Warner Brothers DVD
The most notable filmic trend of the Nineties is without comparison the independent film.
These were once cinematic jewels, discovered and heralded only by those with eccentric taste. Today the term “independent” has become a melting pot to label films that are foreign, have a smallish budget, or contain any stars who may still shop for groceries in quiet anonymity.
Director David O. Russell is one of the unsung heroes of independent film. Spanking the Monkey, Russell’s first feature, is the story of a college student reluctantly spending summer break at home tending to his injured mother. The film is laden with tabooed themes, among them incest, rape, and the practice referenced in the film’s title. Though the film is difficult to watch it is the assured product of a risk-taking auteur.
Russell’s second film, Flirting with Disaster, follows an adopted son as he searches for his birth parents. This would seem, in summary, as a drama. However, because of the film’s unique humor and dialogue charged with subtle wit, viewing it is best accompanied with a bag of Funions, not a box of Kleenex. In breakneck pacing and character depth it is a fitting predecessor to Russell’s (and 1999’s) best film — Three Kings.
Three Kings takes place in the aftermath of the Gulf War. It employs all the expected conventions of a war movie (there are plenty of bombs and wounds) but the plot advances due to unexpected consequence, not cliché. For example, a group of soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) is allowed to dispense their unused rounds at Nerf footballs used as makeshift clay pigeons. In boredom, soldier Vig (Jonze) adheres explosives to some of the footballs, throws them from the back of a moving Jeep, and earns a brief moment of fun as the projectile explodes, emitting pieces of spongy shrapnel. It can be fairly assumed that an unused Nerf football becomes a legitimate weapon by the film’s end.
The “Kings” of the film’s title are Major Archie Gates (George Clooney), Sergeant Troy Barlow (Wahlberg), and Chief (Cube). The team is assembled upon the discovery of a map found hidden in the posterior of an Iraqi hostage. The map leads to millions in Kuwaiti bullion. With no impending task other than to await their departure, the team opts to find it.
The gold bullion serves as a maguffin — a plot device employed to supply a character’s motivation or drive. The soldiers embark with the intention of secretly enriching themselves and become involved in a hive of cultural and political instability.
Drama is the root of any war film. Comedy, conversely, is an unexpected element here, and it should be credited solely to Russell’s screenplay. During their quest, Barlow and Chief wager how they intend spend their wealth. Buying an exotic car is a likely purchase for each of them, and the two spend the remainder of the film arguing whether or not Lexus produces a convertible.
The DVD contains a plethoric collection of extras. Among them is a series of deleted scenes, which are surprisingly valuable to the film. Though their omission from the final cut is understood, the scenes exist singularly minus the benefit of inclusion. The scenes, though brief, trace O. Russell’s eye for detail and his impulse to subvert seemingly unrelated images into a fairly linear sequence. For example, in an alternate opening Troy Barlow shoots and kills an Iraqi soldier. An image of his newborn baby immediately flashes into his head, signifying that he has, in a short amount of time, caused both the beginning and end of a life.
The goofy comedy of Three Kings is balanced with moments of thoughtful poignance. Sergeant Barlow is captured and held captive in a hidden bunker. An Iraqi soldier, who incidentally speaks fluent English, takes the opportunity to question Barlow, and matter-of-factly retorts “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” He is referring to the gradual “whitening” of the self-proclaimed King of Pop.
The “whitening” of Michael Jackson is a metaphor related to the “Americanization” of other cultures. The freedom our country so proudly exclaims may be its most esteemed trait. However true, it is a weapon of influence that has deteriorated other cultures. The Iraqi soldier’s disdain of what Michael Jackson symbolizes is Iraqi criticism of our country’s purpose in the Gulf War. America may be a haven for those seeking freedom, but our culture may breed conformity rather than tolerance.
Reactionary philosophies such as this are the spirit of independent filmmaking. This is precisely what makes Three Kings an under-appreciated triumph. The film has the glamour of a Hollywood blockbuster (not to mention A-list actors) and the drive of an independent; Three Kings is thus the cumulative marriage of the two.
The independent film is becoming a popular trend, losing sight of its initial purpose. Three Kings is solid evidence that its manifesto is firmly intact. We should hope for more films with ideas as original.