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In this episode: Three Kings
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No new THX logo. Bummer. But an interesting movie.

Three Kings is basically a classic western plotline gussied up with modern adornments to give it more immediate relevance and impact. Consider: Four cowboys gallop into a town on a quest to get rich quick. They are delicately balanced between morality and criminality, which makes them not really good guys and not really bad guys. While in the town, the men discover it's being terrorized by an evil sheriff, and their priorities change. Not only do they want the loot, they also want to save the town. Thanks to the change in heart, they get embroiled in confrontations and shoot-outs and suffer much more than they would have—at least physically—had they left the town, minding their own business.

Three Kings is exactly this, only it's set in Iraq at the very end of the Gulf War. The cowboys are soldiers, the loot is gold stolen from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and the town is, well, a town. The evil sheriff is Saddam, as represented by his soldiers and their ever-present fear of his punishment should they fail to execute his orders. The townspeople are Iraqi citizens, who are oppressed and tortured to prevent any revolt against Saddam.

And so the eastern-cum-western stage is set.

The movie was a kick to watch, although, once again, there was a problem with the FUCKING FOCUS! I didn't even bother to tell them because the movie was so grainy anyway the dork way up in the booth would never be able to focus the thing right. (The edges were razor sharp, though.) Oh, and the lights came on in the auditorium in the middle of the movie for about 15 minutes. That I definitely complained about. Guess this review gets put into Bad Focus.

Anyway, the movie was a kick to watch because of its gritty, original visual style. Three Kings could have been done with clean, crisp cinematography like most other action movies, but thankfully David O. Russell (director of Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel tried something different. Much more than your usual saturated, high-contrast tone, the look of Three Kings is strange and surreal. In doing a touch of research (which took all of five minutes), I found out that this look comes from two unorthodox methods. One is a film development process called bleach bypass, where the film is incompletely developed, leaving a "layer of silver" on the negative. This according to the Warner Bros. official propaganda. (Silly me, thinking silver was only used in black-and-white film!) Bleach bypass was used for certain parts of the movie while others were shot using still photography film. This creates another cool look, still grainy and surreal, but more colorful. In the wrong hands, all this inconsistency would be aggravating, but David and Tom make it work. The effect is hard to describe. I'd say it's dream-like; the grainy texture and washed-out tones separate what you see on the screen from reality, while the sometimes bizarre camera angles and movements give the movie that wobbly dream feeling.

The acting is mostly very good. George Clooney is wise to have moved to movies because he can hold the big screen with the best of 'em. While his emotional range is limited in this movie, he's still a sympathetic character. Many shades of his role in Out of Sight (an awesome film, BTW). I'd like to see him stretch, though, before he plays the calm-faced smoothy once too many times.

Mark Wahlberg is a constant surprise to me. I am finally beginning to think of him as an actor first and Marky Mark second. In this movie, Mark has an incredible range, from selfish coldness to calm level-headedness to shocked delirium to emotional breakdown. He does some great work here. (Just for fun, after seeing Three Kings, I popped in the DVD of The Corruptor, which stars Mark and Chow Yun-Fat. The movie was a piece of garbage, mostly, but Mark does a great job with the crappy material. There's a moment when he's being given an "offer he can't refuse" by an underworld figure. As we hear the crime boss drone on off screen, the camera tracks in from a medium shot to an extreme close-up of Mark's face. Every motion in his face is subtle and real, and you can see every point the crime boss is making registering in Mark's mind.) Marky Mark, the actor! Very impressive for a former Back Street Boy. Wait... former 'N Sync? Menudo? What the hell was the name of that group again? The Beantown Boyz? Boston Bratty Back Boyz in the Southie Hood 'N' Stuff? Ah, who knows.

The other top-billed actor in Three Kings is Ice Cube. He doesn't quite cut the mustard here as successfully as George or Mark. He's got some good moments, but you can feel the posturing coming through the performance many times.

The fourth U.S. soldier is played by—and I didn't realize this 'til I looked this up just now—Spike Jonze! Spike is a famous music video director who's first feature directing debut, Being John Malkovich, is coming out next week. Well, in Three Kings he plays a hick with very little education. The character itself is annoying as hell, and that's how it's supposed to be. Spike does a good job, though. He really looks clueless in an honest way. You hate him and you feel bad for him.

Jeez! This movie is just saturated with people from the music industry!

Okay, so there's all this talent and style, and the movie still misses the bullseye. Hmm. It feels hollow much of the time. It has very amusing moments and a couple touching ones, but it gets dragged down with sentimentality. Sentimentality has its place, but not in a movie like this. The point of the movie is that the plight of the innocent Iraqi people—who are being killed by their own government and whose support from the United States never materializes—makes humans out of these soldiers who before then saw all Arabs as mere "towelheads." The method of getting this change across is intrusive. I know once again I might not be making sense because, hey, if you're going to show suffering and make it impactful (a horrible word I learned from marketing), it should of necessity be intrusive. Intrusiveness, however, can be done in different ways, and the fake emotion created by using slo-mo and lingering shots of dirty, worried children and twee musical cues betrays what I think Three Kings is supposed to be. This movie could have remained stylish, visually clever, kinetic, and gritty and shown us the plight of the people. What happens instead is the heavy sentimentality pokes through the stylish skin enough for us to see that this is just another Hollywood cause célébre fit into new fatigues.

While that sounds like I am writing off the movie, I certainly am not. Three Kings is still fast, fun, quirky, and diverting, and definitely worth seeing. See it in the theater for the full impact. The widescreen picture will not hold up in pan-and-scan, and all that beautiful texture and grain with which the filmmakers worked so hard to paint this movie might be diminished on a TV screen.

Out of five stars, I give Three Kings— Oh, wait. I don't do stars.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz except
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