Three Kings (1999) Review

There seems to be a pattern with war films, of any war, to either be a silly comedy or more commonly, a serious drama with an underlying, deeper theme or message. The old days of a fun war film, that had more of an adventure feel to it rather than a serious, heavy theme, seems to be over. I think there is still place for films that get shown on a Sunday afternoon. The kind of films your Dad tells you is a classic and you sit down to watch and find yourself entertained but not preached too, usually for about three hours! I recently reviewed Kelly’s Heroes and this was a great example of a “fun” war film. There was quest, silly and comedic characters and heroes. Even the ending was unusually optimistic and lighthearted.

The problem is, many of the most successful war films are the films that have that underlying message or dark tone. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, The Thin Red Line. All these films have that darker, mature and “realities of war” feel to them that makes them a more focused viewing than just a “fun,” light, Sunday afternoon film.

The film has a much more light-hearted tone than most, more modern war films.

Luckily, Three Kings goes more the route of fun, silly and light-hearted war film than epic, dark and preachy. I’m not saying it doesn’t have that message and underlying theme of “horrors of war” but it presents it in a much more comedic, adventure style than an actual grim, gritty, bloody and realistic tone. The characters are unique and likable. They have a mission that is much more Kelly’s Heroes than Apocalypse Now and come across enough light-hearted but exciting moments to keep this from feeling like a heavy, intense, film-watching experience.

I wouldn’t count the film as a comedy but there is plenty to keep the audience laughing, especially from the “stupid” Conrad Vig played by Spike Jonze. The way he plays off Wahlberg, Clooney and Ice Cube is done fantastically and helps lighten the film, which at times could go very dark. Ice Cube as the no-nonsense Captain is a perfect fit and shows that he does have some serious acting ability that we probably haven’t seen since Boyz n the Hood.

The story is much more about an adventure than a dark, gritty “message.”

George Clooney is a the quick thinking, fast talking, Archie Gates, who comes up with the plan but also changes it when things begin to get beyond the control of the four soldiers. He is also perfectly cast and shows why he is still a very successful and likable actor. Mark Wahlberg, though early in his acting career here, also holds his own and probably has the most to do here. I really rate Wahlberg and think this is another example of how good an actor he actually is.

Mark Wahlberg delivers another impressive performance.

The actors do have light material to play with but there are darker elements. There are bullet wounds, torture scenes and gas attacks but they are done in a more “adventure/action” fashion than war film style and I think that places Three Kings ahead of many other war films that are generally beginning to repeat the same story or themes. It helps that the war they are dealing with, the First Gulf War, is one that had little in the way of loss of American lives so doesn’t have the same resonance as perhaps the Iraq War or even World War Two but there is still plenty of peril and blood-shed to demonstrate here.

I don’t think the films perfect. The tone means it never really delivers on the message and theme it is trying to present and also means the ending probably doesn’t have the impact you’d hope but while I was watching, I just kept thinking how refreshing it was to watch a war film where I wasn’t being bombarded with the “pointlessness of war” or the “brutal environments and stories of our soldiers” which is valid, but can also become tiresome in huge quantities. War films can be, for lack of a better word, “fun.”

Overall, Three Kings is a film that has more in common with the Sunday, tea time war films like Kelly’s Heroes and Bridge over the River Kwai, than Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket and I think it is better for it. It has a good story, great action and a strong cast. It won’t ever top any “best ever war films” lists but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Rating 3

(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)

Spike Jonze is surprisingly positive element of the film.
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