Three Kings (1999): David O. Russell’s Adventure, Set in Gulf War, Starring Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube

One of the few movies about the Gulf War to have come out of Hollywood, David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” is an original action-adventure with serious political overtones.  Remarkably, the film keeps changing themes and tones as it goes along, but it’s doing so effortlessly, without jarring or irritating the audience.

The movie begins as a cynical action comedy, about soldiers of fortune, or gold diggers—literally—guys seeking easy money and adventurism. But by the end, the tale becomes a rather poignant critique of the American foreign policy in the Middle East (and everywhere else).

Stand-up comic John Ridley had originally written a script titled “Spoils of War” as an experiment to see how fast he could write and sell a movie. The writing took only 7 days, soon after Warner bought it. When the studio showed their scripts to O. Russell, he said he was immediately taken by one-sentence description of “Spoils of War, “heist set in the Gulf War,”

As writer and director, O. Russell does not neglect the more intimate human drama and the shifting relationships among his four protagonists.

Army Reserve Sergeant Troy Bartow (Mark Wahlberg) and enlisted men Chief (Ice Cube) and Vig (Spike Jonze) find a map that presumably contains invaluable info, the location of a bunker full of gold.  They run into Major Archie Gates (George Clooney), a disenchanted Special Forces operative, who joins forces.  The group convinces itself that going after the gold is their going-away present.

If the above premise sounds simple, the ensuing narrative is not, and O. Russell should be commended for crafting a richly dense tale, textually, tonally, and visually.

In the very first scene, Barlow is seen shooting a surrendering Iraqi Regular Army soldier. It’s no big deal, due to confusion over the rules of engagement following the end of the Gulf War.

With Private First Class Conrad Vig (Jonze), Troy disarms and searches the surrendering Iraqi soldiers. While forcibly subduing a resisting Iraqi officer, they find a document hidden in his rectum. The document appears to be a map, and Troy decides not to notify his commanding officer, instead taking the “Iraqi ass map” to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Cube), a friend of his. While the trio discusses the implications of their discovery, they leave Specialist Walter Wogeman (Jamie Kennedy) to guard outside the tent.

Major Archie Gates (Clooney), a Special Forces soldier in the same camp, is trading sex for stories with a journalist, Cathy Daitch (Judy Greer), when he is interrupted by Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), the TV reporter assigned to Archie. Adriana tells Archie of the rumors of a secret map. Archie then convinces Troy, Conrad and Chief that the document is a map of Saddam’s bunkers, containing gold stolen from Kuwait.

Using the ceasefire orders from President Bush, the Americans raid and secure the bunkers without any bloodshed. There, among other goods from Kuwait, they find the gold. As they leave, they see a prisoner executed by the newly arrived Iraqi Republican Guard troops, and decide to abandon their original plan to “grab the gold and go.” They rescue a group of Iraqi prisoners, including a local rebel leader, and start a private war against Saddam’s loyal soldiers.

After a firefight in the village and arrival of the Iraqi reinforcements, the Americans’ vehicles are destroyed as they stumble into a minefield, and the Iraqi soldiers capture Troy. A group of rebels rescue the remaining Americans and take them to their underground hideout. There, Conrad, Chief and Archie agree to help the rebels and their families reach the Iranian border, after they rescue Troy.

Taken to an underground bunker, Troy is placed in a room full of Kuwaiti cell phones.  He is able to call his wife and tell her to report his location to his Army Reserve unit. His call is cut short when he is put into an interrogation room, and electrical wires are placed around his ears.  An Iraqi intelligence officer, Captain Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), berates him about the hypocrisy of American involvement in the region. Subjected to several electric shocks, Troy is then forced to drink motor oil. It turns out that Saïd had lost his family during the American bombing of Baghdad.

The group meets a band of Iraqi Army deserters who are willing to help them by selling them a fleet of luxury cars stolen from Kuwait. With these cars, they save Troy, and scare away the soldiers by spreading the rumor that an enraged Saddam is coming to kill them.

In a gallant heroic act, Troy spares the life of his torturer.  But leaving the complex, they are attacked by an armed helicopter, which Chief destroys by throwing a Nerf ball rigged with explosives at it.

During gunfire with some returning Republican Guards, Troy and Conrad are shot. Conrad dies, and Troy, suffering from a punctured lung, has a flutter valve placed in his chest to allow air to escape.

Archie asks for transport, offering the drivers $100,000 each. He then orders that each of the Shi’ites be given a bar of gold and the rest buried. Planning to help the Shi’ites escape, they make their way to the Iranian border, guarded by government forces. After reaching the border they are stopped by the American soldiers and arrested. Archie offers the rest of the gold to the other Americans in exchange for letting the refugees through.

In the end, a title card informs that all the soldiers were cleared of their charges thanks to Adriana Cruz’s reporting. Archie and Chief now work as military advisers to action films, and Troy is the owner of a carpet store.  The stolen gold was returned to Kuwait, although the Kuwaitis reported some was missing.

Three Kings” was shot in the deserts of Arizona, California, and Mexico, with many of the extras played by real-life Iraqi refugees.  Director O. Russell has said that he wanted the visual style to be startling and to reflect “the craziness” of the war.  To that extent, the film, lensed by Thomas Newton Siegel, has a unique look that fits the subject matter, succeeding in dislocating the characters (and the viewers) from anything they might otherwise know from other Hollywood war films.

Though “Three Kings,” which boasted the largest budget O. Russell has ever worked with, was not a huge commercial success, over the years, it has developed a cult following.

It’s now considered to be a particularly poignant war film, with a strong satirical impulse (like all of O. Russell’s pictures), which is still relevant.  Entertaining and provocative on several levels,


Archie Gates (George Clooney)

Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg)

Chief Elgin (Ice Cube)

Adrianna Cruz (Nora Dunn)

Walter Wogaman (Jamie Kennedy)

Colonel Horn (Mykelti Williamson)

Amir Abdulla (Cliff Curtis)

Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui)

Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze)

Captain van Meter (Holt McCallany)


Produced by Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt, Edward l. McDonnell

Directed by David O. Russell

Screenplay: David O. Russell, based on a story by John Ridley

Camera: Thomas Newton Siegel

Editing: Robert K. Lambert

Music; Carter Burwell

Production design: Catherine Hardwicke

Art direction: Jann k. Engel, Derek R. Hill

F/X: Martin Bresin

Costume; Kym Barrett


Running time: 115 Minutes