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[whitespace] George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube
Hole in the AWOL Gang: George Clooney (left), Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube look for adventure in the desert.

'Kings' Dethroned

'Three Kings' forgets some important lessons of old-fashioned moviemaking

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW GEORGE Clooney vehicle is as muddled as the U.S.'s foreign policy in the Mideast. The old rules of crass moviemaking often turn out to have the wisdom of experience behind them, especially when it comes to simple action/adventure films. Rule #1: Have a goal in mind: rudderlessness is no good for slick entertainment. If you're making a new version of Gunga Din, don't let it meander and don't load it down with the baggage of an antiwar movie.

Three Kings tries to take on the more complex issues of the Gulf War, but the ambiguity is wasted. No pondering of the brutality of war or the questionable goals of the conflict can cover up the fact that Three Kings is just an old-school comedy/adventure about a quartet of soldiers going AWOL to loot some of Saddam's stolen gold. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, ghetto teddy bear Ice Cube and, in a yokel role, the debuting video director Spike Jonze star as the soldiers. During the trip, the four learn that the real gold to be found is in Helping Other People. At the end of the heartless adventure, the soldiers adopt a group of Arab civilians; their simple Muslim faith infects even the most Christian among them, and the soldiers lead them into freedom.

Rule # 2: Don't bury the star; give him some chance to walk around radiating star quality. Because of the divergent subplots, Clooney (as Special Forces Captain Archie Gates) seems to be making a guest appearance in his own film. Director/writer David O. Russell was previously known for the intimate Spanking the Money and the angst-ridden Flirting With Disaster. Going mainstream, Russell is a non-combatant seduced by machismo. This is another one of those movies that boasts in the press notes about sending its actors to boot camp. The problem with this brand of "realism" is that the directors of such movies get seduced by war nostalgia. Thus their films have the ambiance of the American Legion Hall instead of the battlefield.

The film has a large cast of undifferentiated Arabs, among which a few stereotypes emerge: a martyred mom, an adorable girl child, a helpful English-speaking liaison to the faceless mob and, of course, the Oxford-educated torturer out of Lives of a Bengal Lancer. (In this case, it wasn't Oxford but an American state college where he learned hotel management.) Meanwhile, Nora Dunn plays a TV reporter lost in the same desert--seemingly for the purpose of having something to cut to. Newton Thomas Sigel's photography includes some arresting effects. The bleached-bone-colored photography is as odd as Russell's use of interior views of a human chest cavity. One character is wounded and has an emergency valve stuck in his chest so he can occasionally release the air pressure that threatens to collapse his lungs. Three Kings seems to have a similar valve on it. Russell's twiddling fingers fuss with that valve, dissipating the film's pressure whenever it builds.

Three Kings (R; 110 min.), directed and written by David O. Russell, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the September 29-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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