Three Kings

USA/Australia 1999

Reviewed by John Wrathall


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Iraq, March 1991. The Gulf War has just ended. US soldiers Troy Barlow and Conrad Vig find a map of the bunkers behind Iraqi lines where Saddam Hussein has hidden gold bullion looted from Kuwait. After getting wind of the story, Major Archie Gates convinces them, along with their staff sergeant Chief Elgin, to help him steal the gold. The four soldiers locate the bullion in a bunker concealed beneath a village well. Saddam's soldiers make no attempt to stop them because they are busy suppressing local rebels. Reluctant to abandon them to their fate, the Americans decide to take the villagers with them, even though it's against official US policy.

As they are leaving the village, they are gassed by Iraqi Republican Guards. Troy is captured and tortured. Gates, Conrad and Chief are rescued by rebels. In return for a share of the gold and an escort to the Iranian border, the rebels help to rescue Troy, but Conrad is shot dead by a sniper. Fulfilling their part of the bargain, Gates, Troy and Chief escort the rebels to the Iranian border, only to be arrested by Gates' superior Colonel Horn for acting against US policy. As a result, Iraqi border guards are able to recapture the rebels. But Gates convinces Horn to secure the rebels' safe passage into Iran; in return, Gates, Troy and Chief agree to give back the gold.


A big-budget war movie starring George Clooney might seem like a huge departure for the writer-director of two intimate, subversively comic dissections of family life, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. But from the opening minute of Three Kings, it's clear that David O. Russell's idiosyncratic vision has survived the transition unscathed. Spotting an armed Iraqi in the desert just after the Gulf War ceasefire, and unsure exactly what their orders are, Sergeant Troy Barlow asks his comrades: "Are we shooting?" But instead of giving him a clipped affirmative or negative, they misunderstand him, launching into a cross-purposes riff on possible meanings of the phrase. As the atrocities pile up, Russell's dialogue never loses this screwball edge - not even in the torture scene, where the Iraqi interrogator Captain Said batters Troy into admitting how screwed-up US society must be to have forced Michael Jackson to have plastic surgery in order to look white.

The film's visual touches are correspondingly bizarre, not least the full-colour close-ups inside a body to demonstrate the damage bullets do to internal organs. But the film's surrealism, whether showing desert bunkers piled with looted consumer goods or towers of flame reflected in lakes of spilled oil, seems less a flip stylistic decision on Russell's part than a direct and honest response to the extraordinary conditions of the war itself.

Russell never lets his quirky asides get in the way of a streamlined and classically structured Hollywood action-movie plot. The story itself, for instance, isn't all that far removed from the Clint Eastwood vehicle Kelly's Heroes (1970). The satirical tone, meanwhile, owes more to a very different Hollywood war movie of that era, Robert Altman's MASH (1969). Russell may share Altman's irreverence and cynicism but, unlike Altman, he never lets go of his humanity. Everyone in this war has their reasons, even the torturer Said, who is given a moving speech (powerfully delivered by the French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui) about the slaughter of his child by American bombs.

Beyond the hip comedy and slick, action-driven narrative, Russell also offers a serious indictment of the conduct of the war, not least the way George Bush encouraged the Iraqi population to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and then refused to go to their support. In venturing into Iraq, Gates and his team are motivated purely by greed; that they end up doing any good is entirely by accident - and only by going directly against official US policy.

What lingers in the mind far longer than the smart dialogue, the slightly cartoon characterisations or the neat feel-good ending is a vivid sense of the sickening nature of modern warfare: poison gas, land-mines, cluster bombs, chemical pollution, torture chambers and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, among other things. But these horrors, to Russell's credit, are conveyed with a minimum of sanctimonious outrage. Among the rebels rescued by Gates is a little girl. Both her arms are in plaster, but Russell never directs our attention to this detail, nor stops to explain it. How her arms were broken is left to our imagination.


David O. Russell
Charles Roven
Paul Junger Witt
Edward L. McDonnell
David O. Russell
John Ridley
Director of Photography
Newton Thomas Sigel
Robert K. Lambert
Production Designer
Catherine Hardwicke
Carter Burwell
©Warner Bros (US/Canada/Bahamas/
©Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited (all other territories)
Production Companies
Warner Bros. presents in assocation with Village Roadshow Pictures/Village - A.M. Film Partnership
a Coast Ridge/Atlas Entertainment production
Executive Producers
Gregory Goodman
Kelley Smith-Wait
Bruce Berman
Douglas Segal
Kim Roth
John Ridley
Associate Producer
Alan G. Glazer
Production Associate
Mary Courtney
Production Managers
Gregory Goodman
Ronald G. Smith
Location Managers
Peter Novak
David Wolfson
2nd Unit Director
Dan Bradley
Assistant Directors
Julian Wall
Kent Genzlinger
Paul F. Bernard
Amy Hughes
Eric Yellin
John Downer
2nd Unit:
Lisa Satriano
Rebecca Stefan
Script Supervisors
Haley McLane
2nd Unit:
Nicole Espinosa
Mary Vernieu
Anne McCarthy
Deedra Ricketts
Tina Kerr
Freddy Luis
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Phil Pfeiffer
Camera Operators
Larry McConkey
2nd Unit:
Lyn Lockwood
Greg Schmidt
Keith Smith
Joe Valentine
Steadicam Operator
Larry McConkey
Visual Effects
POP Film
Visual Effects Supervisor:
David Sosalla
Visual Effects Executive Producer:
Joe Gareri
Special Effects Co-ordinator
Marty Bresin
Special Effects
Richard Zarro
Chris Jones
Timothy C. Walkey
Mike Van Arkel
Jeff Bresin
Michael Brown
Werner Hahnlein
Michael Roundy
Bob Simocovic
Gary Snyder
Danny J. Edwards
David A. Poole
Ron Thompson
Additional Editing
Pamela March
Mark Bourgeois
Dexter Adriano
Supervising Art Director
Derek R. Hill
Art Director
Jann Engel
Set Decorator
Gene Serdena
Raymond Consing
Costume Designer
Kym Barrett
Costume Supervisors
Dan Bronson
Bob Morgan
Allan Apone
Ron Snyder
Adam Brandy
Michelle Garbin
2nd Unit:
Clifff Dance
Janet Lazio Santa
Make-up Effects
Tony Gardner
Jim Beinke
Robert Louis Stevenson
2nd Unit:
Karen Rich
Sandra Coley Greene
Pacific Title/Mirage
Music Conductors/
Carter Burwell
Sonny Kompanek
Music Supervisor
Ralph Sall
Music Editors
Bunny Andrews
Adam Smalley
Music Score Mixer
Michael Farrow
"I Just Want to Celebrate" by Nick Zesses, Dino Fekaris, performed by Rare Earth; "I Get Around" by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, performed by The Beach Boys; "God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood, arranged by Richard Lawrence Wolf; "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man" by Keith Shocklee, William Drayton, Eric Sadler, performed by Public Enemy; "Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin, Michael McClure, Bobby Neuwirth; "Stop ou Encore" by Jacques Lanzmann, J.P. Hawks, performed by Plastic Bertrand; "If You Leave Me Now" by Peter Cetera, performed by Chicago; "Party All the Time" by Rick James, performed by Eddie Murphy; "Gloria (Cum Sancto Spiritu in Gloria dei Patris)" from "Mass in B Minor" by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Academy and Chorus of St Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Neville Marriner; "The Power (Original Single/Dub Mix)" by Benito Benitez, John Garrett III, Antoinette Colandero, performed by Snap; "Zurna-Tabl-Naqqare" performed by Iraqi Traditional Group; "Outside 2B", "The Beast Is Coming" from "Unstrung Heroes" by Thomas Newman; "Flesh & Bone" by Thomas Newman; "Torture" by Graeme Revell; "In God's Country" by U2, Bono, The Edge, performed by U2
Additional Sound Design
Lance Brown
Sound Mixers
Edward Tise
2nd Unit:
Lisa Pinero-Amses
Re-recording Mixers
Robert Litt
Dan Leahy
Michael Herbick
Supervising Sound Editors
Bruce Fortune
John Leveque
Dialogue Editors
Donald L. Warner Jr
Robert Troy
Kimberly Lowe Voight
Sound Effects Editors
Steve Mann
Anthony R. Milch
Aaron D. Weisblatt
Terry Rodman
Richard E. Yawn
Gary Blufer
Thomas J. O'Connell
Supervising Editor:
Joe Dorn
Nicholas V. Korda
Jonathan Klein
John Roesch
Allison Moore
Michael Broomberg
Mary Jo Lang
Supervising Editor:
Shawn Sykora
Michael Dressel
Bob Beher
Aerial Co-ordinator
Mike Patlin
Iraqi Technical:
Sermid Al'serrif
Iraqi Religious:
Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini
Military Technical:
Lt John Rottger
Staff Major Jim Parker
Colonel King Davis
Herman Cohen
Kate Kondell
Stunt Co-ordinator
Dan Bradley
Animal Services
Chief Pilot
Louis Timalot
George Clooney
Major Archie Gates
Mark Wahlberg
Sergeant Troy Barlow
Ice Cube
Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin
Nora Dunn
Adriana Cruz
Jamie Kennedy
Walter Wogaman
Mykelti Williamson
Colonel Horn
Cliff Curtis
Amir Abdulah
Saïd Taghmaoui
Captain Said
Spike Jonze
Private Conrad Vig
Holt McCallany
Captain Van Meter
Judy Greer
Cathy Daitch
Christopher Lohr
Jon Sklaroff
Liz Stauber
Debbie Barlow, Troy's wife
Marsha Horan
Amir's wife
Alia Shawkat
Amir's daughter
Jabir Algarawi
Ghanem Algarawi
hairdressing twins
Bonnie Afsary
Western dressed village woman
Jacqueline Abi-Ad
traditional village woman
Fadil Al-Badri
deserter leader
Al No-Omani
Sayed Badreya
Iraqi tank major
Magdi Rashwan
Iraqi troop carrier major
Alex Dodd
Iraqi first kill soldier
Larry 'Tank' Jones
Berm soldier/truck driver
Patrick O'Neal Jones
Shawn Pilot
Brett Bassett
Berm soldiers
Jim Gaffifan
cut's Troy's cuff soldier
Al Whiting
Brian Patterson
camp soldiers/truck drivers
Scott Dillon
Kwesi Okai Hazel
Joseph Richard Romanov
Christopher B. Duncan
Randy W. McCoy
Mark Rhodes
Scott Pearce
camp soldiers
Gary Parker
civil affairs company clerk
Haidar Alatowa
Saudi translator
Salah Salea
Iraqi soldier with map
Doug Jones
dead Iraqi soldier
Farinaz Farrokh
Iraqi civilian mother with baby
Omar 'Freefly' Alhegelan
bunker 1 lying Iraqi
Hassan Allawati
bunker 1 friendly Iraqi
Sara Aziz
pleading civilian woman
A. Halim Mostafa
Iraqi civilian man
Al Mustafa
bunker 2 store room captain
Anthony Batarse
Iraqi interrogation sergeant
Mohamad Al-Jalahma
Mohammed Sharafi
bunker 2 Iraqi rifle loaders
Hillel Michael Shamam
bunker 2 store room guard
Joey Naber
Iraqi radio operator
Basim Ridha
black robe leader
Peter MacDisssi
oasis bunker Iraqi republican guard lieutenant
Tony Shawkat
Joseph Abi-Ad
oasis bunker Iraqi republican guard sergeants
Fahd Al-Ujaimy
Derick Qaqish
oasis bunker Troy's interrogation guards
Hassan Bach-Agha
Fadi Sitto
oasis bunker Troy's republican guards
Ali Alkindi
Abdullah Al-Dawalem
Rick Mendoza
Jassim Al-Khazraji
oasis bunker republican roof guard
Haider Alkindi
Kalid Mustafa
Ghazwyn Ramlawi
Raad Thomasian
Wessam Saleh
oasis bunker fleeing republican guards
Jay Giannone
Sam Hassan
oasis bunker republican guards/snipers
Brian Bosworth
action star
Donte Delila
Dylan Brown
Iraqi children
Warner Bros Distributors (UK)
10,319 feet
114 minutes 40 seconds
Dolby digital/DTS digital/SDDS
Colour by
Super 35 [2.35:1]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011