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WISE GUYS; 'Three Kings,' a bold, intelligent action film, brings cyncal humor on a thrill ride to war's dark side and back. It's pure gold, handsomely cast.


Forget Normandy. The longest day in war history is certainly the one depicted in "Three Kings," wherein three U.S. soldiers hunt for a cache of gold in the waning days of the Persian Gulf war.

"We'll leave at dawn and be back by lunch," Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates tells the three soldiers accompanying him on the caper. Well, not exactly. What starts out as a brash act of comeuppance -- the theft of several kilos of gold from Saddam Hussein, who in turn had stolen it from the Kuwaitis -- turns into a harrowing journey to the underside of the Iraqi conflict, where cynical humor, political intrigue, human pathos and good old-fashioned whoop-'em-up action coexist in a jangly balance.

There are surprises at every turn in "Three Kings," but most surprising of all is the sheer nerve with which writer-director David O. Russell deploys the movie's emotional dips and turns. Just as he did with his first movie, "Spanking the Monkey," Russell handles explosive material with bold assurance, in this case expressed in a wildly kinetic visual style. With a hard-edged look and lots of fast edits, freeze frames, flashbacks and other tricks of the trade, Russell mines the filmmaking styles of directors such as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee to create a trippy excursion into war's more hallucinatory horrors.

But what sets "Three Kings" apart from yet another post-modern take on violence and machismo is an intelligence beneath the bravado. With unusual subtlety, and without sacrificing one vicarious thrill, Russell examines the cruel contradictions of America's involvement in Iraq and manages to humanize a country that for too long has been little more than a shadowy caricature.

But lest filmgoers think Russell has perpetrated a political tract, rest assured: Lots of things blow up in "Three Kings," and many guns are fired. Indeed, the movie opens with a starkly confrontational scene in which a group of American soldiers, celebrating the announcement of the war's end in March 1991, watch as one of their brethren shoots an Iraqi in the neck.

The killing introduces the audience to a world veering seriously out of kilter, in which jacked up and disoriented young soldiers drink, dance and shoot with desperate abandon. Chief among them is U.S. Army Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), a hot-shot who is the idol of his company, especially Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a dim Texan who looks as if he's been drawn by Tex Avery. (If any group has a legitimate gripe with "Three Kings," it's Southern white males, who are consistently portrayed as dumb rednecks.)

During a routine round-up of Iraqi prisoners, in which the Americans demand that they "disrobe like the other towel-heads," Troy and Conrad happen upon a map, which they show Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube). Convinced that the map leads to a bunker full of stolen Kuwaiti gold, the three men are discovered by Capt. Gates (George Clooney), who takes over the operation with his usual amalgam of cockiness and charisma. Going AWOL for a day, the four soldiers steal a Humvee and set out across the desert. But even though the map is accurate, what they encounter is far from what they expect.

A grim humor pervades "Three Kings," where a massacre is accompanied by easy-listening classics, and the fate of a prisoner is written on a kitchen blackboard like just another errand.

That humor will no doubt throw many filmgoers off when the movie's more serious side kicks in. This is, after all, a movie whose protagonists share cynical barbs one moment and watch an Iraqi woman be shot the next. It's a tribute to Russell's skill and taste that the human drama is never drowned out by the laughter; if anything, the comedy underscores the horrific core of the story.

One of the film's most clever motifs is the graphic portrayal of a bullet going through a human body, a sequence Russell uses to illustrate just what happens when someone is shot; the sight of bile oozing into torn organs is enough to scare any gun-happy cowboy straight.

Fans of Clooney will be happy to see him shed his romantic-lead persona and get into gruff-guy mode, and no actor alive could possibly look as good as he does while covered in a fine coating of dust. Clooney is amply supported by Ice Cube and Wahlberg, who handles the film's most brutal scenes -- and profound transformation -- with the confidence of a seasoned pro.

As watchable as its cast is, though, it's the movie itself that's the star of "Three Kings." With cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Russell has created a dizzying display of color, texture and movement that keeps this crackling thriller constantly moving. In his hands, even the cliche of guys escaping a fireball in slow motion feels like something new.

Some filmgoers might describe "Three Kings" as a thinking person's action adventure. Some might call it a political thriller with an extra kick of testosterone. Either way, this audacious hybrid of cinematic styles is pure entertainment.

'Three Kings'

Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube

Directed by David O. Russell

Released by Warner Brothers

Rated R (graphic war violence, language and some sexuality)

Running time: 111 minutes

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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