Here's Moriarty and his look at THREE KINGS, what he calls an early favorite for a top ten of the year spot. Of course he's beyond actually calling it 'one of the top ten of the year' Because... like all good film reviewers... he realizes that... if (as we all hope) the year becomes a thing of legend... that this merely wonderful movie may in fact be an eleven.... or who knows... upon repeat viewings it could be in his five. Whatever the case may be.... Moriarty seems to have adored it, but I'll let him tell you that... himself...
Hey, Head Geek...
Since I've now seen every film that any studio is releasing this summer (well, almost... but it sure feels like it), I'm already turning my attention to the fall. There's a lot of films I've been dying to see that they teased heavily at ShoWest this year, and of them, THREE KINGS would have to place near the very top of my list.
My wait is over, thanks to Joe Farrell and his many fine assistants. Tonight, Joe looked me in the eye and had a nice, chatty conversation with me as we were waiting to go in. I was right there near the front of the line, minding my own business, when he actually started talking to me. Delightful. Nice to see you, sir. He even told me to "enjoy the film" as I went in.
Well, Joe, I did. In fact, I'm going to call THREE KINGS as one of the early contenders for my 10 Best of '99 list. I can't imagine I'll see any film that offers a better blend of action, drama, political material, and dark, dark, dark comedy. If I do, then this is going to be one of the best film years we've had. Right now, though, David O. Russell and Warner Bros. have every reason to believe that they own the weekend of October 9, which is when I think the film is slated to open.
The film starts abruptly as a single title card lets us know where and when we are. "March 1991 -- The War Has Just Ended." Just like that, we're following Mark Wahlberg through the desert. He stops when he spots an Iraqi on top of a sand dune. He calls back to his platoon, "Are we shooting?" At first, no one seems to understand his question. He points out that the Iraqi has a gun, which gets everyone's attention. Once it's determined that, yes, they are shooting, that's what Mark does. He pops the guy. As everyone congratulates him on finally seeing a little action, and as photos are popped of soldiers posing with the body, we see the opening title.
Welcome to the first movie that truly nails America on the Gulf War.
Now, I don't know about a lot of our readers, but I remember the climate around the Gulf War vividly. It was terrifying to those of us in our early 20s because it was the first hot conflict to pop up that was sold as having real potential. When I say "sold," I'm being specific with my word choice, too, since this was also the first war to be pre-packaged for television. CNN had a great logo and theme song for the war, and their coverage was polished, making instant celebrities out of reporters. We all watched, and I did as much reading as I could about the causes of the thing. I started reading out of fear. What if this thing drags on? What if there's a draft? But the more I read, the more I realized that we were seeing an economic skirmish, a pissing match over oil. Saddam Hussein was a paper dictator, an easy figure to use to rile up Americans. The "war" was nothing more than an exercise in thuggery, exactly the kind of conflict that we would be involved in by a criminal like George Bush. It was immoral and disgusting.
And no one said a word.
I have spent much of this decade marvelling at how completely we seem to have absorbed this event and justified it in our heads. I'm astounded at how I still hear people talk about it like we did something or accomplished some great goal. And when COURAGE UNDER FIRE came out, I thought the film had some strong performances and tried to explore ethical issues, even as it dodged the most important issue of all -- should we have been there?
I never in a million years would have guessed that a film starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube would turn out to be the first serious, sober look at the ethics of that conflict. I never would have guessed that Warner Bros., a company that is in bed with the man who most benefitted from the Gulf War (Ted Turner), would release such a film. And I never would have believed it possible that David O. Russell, who has given us small, carefully studied character comedies (SPANKING THE MONKEY and the brilliant FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) up till now would have pulled off the first great war comedy since Altman's M*A*S*H.
The premise of the film that I was told sold it short. I heard that the film was about three soldiers who find a treasure map on a dead Iraqi who then set out to retrieve Saddam's gold from a hidden bunker. The trailer at ShoWest made me think it would be a hard edged action comedy. Instead, there's a film here of considerable weight and conscience, one that has far more on its mind than mere entertainment.
Don't get me wrong, though. The film is wildly entertaining. The cast is wonderful, with the core group of soldiers played by Clooney, Wahlberg, Cube, and music video director Spike Jonze. Each of these actors does standout work, and together they are marvelous to behold. There's an easy chemistry on display here, and no one does anything that would make them stand out as a movie star. Instead, their work supports each other and lets the script stand front and center, which is a wonderful thing. This film is smart, and manages to accomplish major tonal shifts effortlessly. I kept waiting for Russell to fumble. Sure, he knows character, but can he direct action? Okay, he can handle action, but how is he with emotional drama? Okay, he can do that, too. Damn... this guy is truly gifted.
There's some sensational work from the supporting cast as well, but I am afraid I don't know several of the actors' names. The lead Iraqi rebel in particular deserves high praise, as does Wahlberg's interrogator from late in the film. These two men give a human face to the Iraqi people that we haven't seen in American films yet. The film starts off with characters trading lines about "dune coons" and "towelheads" and "camel jockeys" and "sand niggers," and there's an attitude in all the major characters of detachment. They don't want to help anyone. They just want some damn gold. But their transition to seeing the people around them as human is believable, and I think many of the people in the audience made the same journey. Understanding the emotions of the people in Iraq is made simple in one brilliant scene involving Wahlberg and his interrogator. I won't ruin it for you, but I do want to make special note of it. It's writing and directing and performing like this that makes going to movies worthwhile and even occasionally important.
The print we saw tonight was beyond rough. It almost felt like it was held together with scotch tape on every splice. I'm confident we were the first test audience to see the film. One of the things that was obviously still in the rough editing stages was the level of violence in the film. I know Hollywood is under fire for this now, so I'd like to address Warner directly on this issue. This is the kind of violence that everyone recognizes as responsible. There's a sequence that explores the real dangers of being shot and another involving a central character who catches a bullet in the chest. Both of those scenes are more startlingly graphic than we're used to in studio films, but I would implore you to leave them intact. This film illustrates just how much a single gunshot or a single bomb dropped can do to a family, a community, a country. This is the kind of imagery that will teach people something about reality. This isn't MATRIX, with 234,000,000,000 gunshots being fired in a scene for no reason other than entertainment. This is important.
I could probably run on for another forty paragraphs about this film, but I won't. Hopefully I'll be able to talk to Russell about this film further before it comes out and share those conversations with you. Even if that doesn't happen, though, make note of that title -- THREE KINGS. It's a powerhouse.