2 August 2010

THREE KINGS- The Best Iraq War Movie?

Last week's 1980s smorgasbord leaves the multiplex looking a little bare this week, (there's a Cats & Dogs 2 review coming on Friday, for fuck's sake), so I've been delving back in time to watch some slightly older films this week. This happens a lot more than you'd think based on the review output of this blog, and I'm silly to try and prove that by blogging on the topic of a film that only came out in 1999.

Three Kings was on ITV1, that most evil and asinine of terrestrial channels, this past weekend, and having wanted to watch it for a long time, I decided Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, showing at the same time over on BBC One, would probably turn up on iPlayer. It didn't. It's difficult to be angry about missing it though, because Three Kings is one of the best war movies I've seen in a long time.

Perhaps my memory seems short- after all, Inglourious Basterds was only out last year. But what I'm actually talking about is modern war movies. What must be remembered is that America and its allies are still embroiled in war overseas, a fact that has informed all of Hollywood's action output since the September 11th attacks almost a decade ago.

Never mind that the war is against the broad and entirely intangible concept of "terror", and the fact that you might as well declare war on fluff or rainbows, it's had a huge influence. For instance, all of Steven Spielberg's films post-9/11 (bar that Indiana Jones one) have been related in some way to America's reaction. See The Terminal or Munich or War of the Worlds, you'll see what I mean.

What makes Three Kings different? Simply that it was produced before Bush misguidedly opened fire on Iraq, and it documents the war the elder Bush waged in the same arena, some years earlier. The upshot of this is that it's really prepared to show what America was doing wrong in that war, rather than being informed by vague aspersions towards the legitimacy of the second conflict and liberal guilt as in the likes of Green Zone.

Maybe I'm overstating it with my oh-so-political reasoning and my provocative blog heading, but bear with me- I'm going to be writing about Demolition Man on Wednesday, so you know that'll be a lot more fun. And you know what? Three Kings is actually a pretty fun film too. It's just a thrilling miasma of comedy, action and drama, weighing characters with personality against the undertones of political commentary.

It essentially combines heist movie tropes with the fallout of Desert Storm by sending a group of soldiers- a young father, his fratboy buddy, an undervalued chief sergeant and a cynical major due for retirement- off on a quest for gold bullion. The trouble is, it's all bullion that Saddam Hussein stole from Kuwait, and the four end up violating the ceasefire and bringing the Iraqi Republican Guard down on their heads when it all goes wrong.

There are scenes like those in latter Iraq war films, where characters sit about discussing what's wrong with them as human beings and what's wrong with America as a country, but it never seems preachy. With George Clooney's Major Archie Gates, wondering what was achieved in this minor set-to with Iraq seems a matter of course for him, and far less conspicuous than Clooney's latter visits to the same area in Syriana (which is obviously without humour) or The Men Who Stare At Goats (which is entirely humorous).

Elsewhere, the inevitable diatribe about America's arrogance is delivered fittingly by a more unconventional torturer than we normally get in American cinema. Amir, played by Cliff Curtis, is not some hulking mute or pantomime evil character while torturing our protagonist, he's a man who's genuinely been wronged by his own country and by America itself. Antagonists with proper dimensions are sorely missed in most other Iraq movies.

People will cite Sam Mendes' Jarhead as a great Iraq war movie, but I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by that when I first saw it. I should probably revisit it, but I can only remember it doing things that David O. Russell does better in Three Kings, with Mendes only really being reinforced by the "This really happened" mantra.

The one that does stand out as better is obviously The Hurt Locker, but as I said, you can have a lot more fun with Three Kings. The Hurt Locker is a damn fine film, but it's not one I like to see again too often. Three Kings tempers its social and political conscience with a plot that goes beyond the foreign policy implications and just outright entertains its audience.

There are the same stark visuals and washed out colours, but what you're looking at is still enjoyable on many levels. Can America produce another war movie like this, as long as they're tooling around in the Middle East?

I'm Mark the mad prophet and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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