"Three Kings"

Every detail counts in David O. Russell's Gulf War heist picture.

By Jeff Stark

Published June 12, 2000 9:27PM (EDT)

"Three Kings"
Written and directed by David O. Russell
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze
Warner Bros.; widescreen
Extras: Director commentary, producer commentary, deleted scenes, more

In David O. Russell's "Three Kings" DVD audio commentary, the director explains that he wanted to make every bullet count. He filmed quick firefights in pan-and-zoom slow motion, isolated the quiet thud of a slug slamming into a rebel woman's skull and created a model of internal organs to show what happens when soldiers get hit. Those are the kind of details that make his Gulf War heist flick such a different kind of action movie.

On one hand, it's an incredibly traditional actioner, driven by a screaming plot, impressive explosions and George Clooney. But it's also morally messy, disarmingly funny and just really fucking cool to look at.

The commentaries -- one from the director, another by two of the producers -- try to set up Russell in the center of a sort of "Apocalypse Now"- or "Fitzcarraldo"-style nightmare, fighting against the studio for time and money, braving the desert dust with filtered masks and goggles. But a documentary about the making of the film also included on the DVD, as well as Russell's own video journal, shows a different filmmaker: a cocky, inexperienced brat who found $40 million for a film with only two low-budget indies behind him ("Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster") and a killer script in his hand. His jungle, his steamship, is nothing more than the colossal feat of reconciling his ego with the unassailable fact that he has no idea what he's doing out in the middle of the Arizona desert with a Humvee and a handful of helicopters.

But I don't want to pick on Russell. "Three Kings" is excellent, and it only gets better with his commentary, in which he justifies nearly every shot in the film, pointing out one-second images that were taken from wartime photographs and minute details such as why the soldiers at the start of the film look like they're getting drunk on mouthwash.

Clooney and Russell fought on the set and even came to blows. The various commentaries never address the conflict head-on, but there are a lot of opaque references, including a great moment in an absurd Spike Jonze featurette where Clooney gets aggro on Jonze for videotaping a rehearsal with Ice Cube.

Other extras: A solid short interview with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel that explains the different film stocks and why they were used; a behind-the-scenes walk-through with Catherine Hardwicke that makes production design look like the best job ever; and four deleted scenes, with a voice-over by Russell.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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