Like Saving Private Ryan, Three Kings constructs its war story from the carcasses of previous films. Unlike Ryan, which is content to be a simple 50s-era WWII epic directed by arguably the most technically proficient director in the history of film, Three Kings borrows from the mythic desert landscapes of Sergio Leone and George Miller -- the scene where the milk truck crashes into the center of town could have come straight from The Road Warrior. And it's this mythification that gives Three Kings its adrenaline rush and its schizophrenic attitude especially when it veers into polemical mode. While Russell makes some needed points about America's attitude toward the war -- most memorabli fashion when an Iraqi torturer (portrayed sympathetically by Said Tamaghougi) force feeds his American captive oil, his own tendency to film the action as thrilling adventure undermines them. It's one of the rare films I've seen that manages to be simultaneously awash in rah-rah patriotism and display a critical judgment of American culture.
This schizophrenia is apparent in all of the film's moods, as it swerves from absurdist comedy to sincere melodrama to pumped-up action and back again; and it's this same bitonality that weakens the film intellectually that makes it such a thrill to watch. While the general plotline is fairly predictable, the film's ping pong tone makes the particular of the scenes fresh. From the Nerf balls used for target practice to Iraqi soldiers exercising on captured Kuwaiti treadmills, Three Kings is filled with unique and peculiar details that give even the most hackneyed scenes a snap. Russell and his crew are just as reckless with the camera, varying camera speed with the gusto of a John Woo and giving the film a bleached, bone-dry look that perfectly complements the frenzy of the film. The acting is the least interesting thing about Three Kings -- its characterization is just as stereotyped as Ryan -- but Mark Wahlberg gives the first sign in two years that his superb performance in Boogie Nights wasn't a complete fluke and Spike Jonze does an admirable job in his acting debut.
Like most people not named Armond White, I have my quibbles about Spielberg's goals and aims as an artist. I however never doubt for a moment that what appears on screen is shot exactly the way he wanted it.
The Bart Simpson and flags hood ornament that was prominent in the trailer captures this perfectly.