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The Battle of ‘Three Kings’ Ended With a Perfect Movie and a Vision of the Future

This film foresaw everything: the cynicism of invading the Middle East. The horrors of a refugee crisis. The movie stardom of George Clooney. The madness of David O. Russell.

Adam Villacin

Welcome to 1999 Movies Week, a celebration of one of the best years in film history. Throughout the week, The Ringer will highlight some of the year’s best, most interesting films, and in this series, make the case for why a specific movie deserves to be called that year’s best. Next up is Three Kings, David O. Russell’s Desert Storm–set comedy heist.

George Clooney really, really wanted to be the star of Three Kings. David O. Russell really, really didn’t want that. Clooney—still best known as ER’s Dr. Doug Ross and an also-ran Batman—sought out auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers to burnish his credibility and jump-start meaningful projects. In 1997, he was passed a copy of Russell’s script by emissaries inside Warner Bros. Russell, in the aftermath of two much-admired, if small, indies (Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster) was a predictable target for the actor. Daring, funny, formally unrestrained, and a little nutty, the filmmaker had the makings of a modern-day Robert Altman. In 1999, Clooney shared with Entertainment Weekly all the ways he tried to capture Russell’s attention.

He wrote Russell a letter self-deprecatingly signed “George Clooney, TV Actor”; he offered to show Russell an early cut of Out of Sight; he even showed up on Russell’s doorstep in New York City to plead his case. “He opened the door with his video camera,” says Clooney. “It’s very annoying. And he said, ‘Does this bother you?’ And I said, ‘It will only if I don’t get the job…. If I end up in The Making of Three Kings and I’m not in the movie, then I’ll look like an a–hole.”’

Russell had pined after recent Oscar winner Nicolas Cage for the role of Major Archie Gates, an Army vet on the brink of retirement who’s grown cynical at the end of the Desert Storm conflict. He didn’t think Clooney had the grit or gravitas to pull off the role; he wasn’t Archie, he was that guy from One Fine Day. Then Russell saw From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez’s splattering Mexican vampire road movie, and began to reconsider. (Also: Cage opted for Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.) Soon, Dr. Doug was Gates, and Three Kings had a green light at a major studio with a $50 million budget. Little did Clooney and Russell know what their union would portend.

Three Kings is a film forged in unholy unions. Clooney and Russell famously battled throughout the chaotic production of the film—physically wrestling and shouting at one another repeatedly over Russell’s notoriously obtuse, furious, and unorthodox directing style. “He’s a weirdo, and he’s hard to talk to,” Clooney said at the time, “but that’s what makes his writing unique and interesting.” They clashed, just as the styles of the film clashed. Three Kings is a heist flick that cracks its safes inside a war movie acting like a comedy shot by the Maysles brothers and Michael Bay’s bastard son. Current events collide with ancient history. Cultures are thrown together in service of theft. Families are torn apart without reason.

The film follows four soldiers—Clooney’s Gates, Ice Cube’s Chief, Mark Wahlberg’s Troy, and Spike Jonze’s Conrad—on a rogue mission as the U.S. Army prepares to leave Iraq at the end of Desert Storm. After getting a tip from a map wedged inside the asshole of a Iraqi soldier (seriously), the four men go in search of $23 million of Kuwaiti gold bullion that has been stolen by Saddam Hussein. (The story is based on a script written by John Ridley, which Russell claimed to have never read. Ridley earned a story credit in arbitration.) The movie’s plot is an extraordinary setup that allows for some big thinking and equally big risk. David O. Russell was considered brilliant, but unproven.

“Everybody was extremely excited about the script,” producer Charles Roven told EW, ”but everybody also recognized that this wasn’t what we call a commercial fastball down the middle. But that’s the point — you don’t get into business with David and think that’s what you’re going to get.”

Three Kings is about four forgotten grunts looking to make a little something extra. It’s riven with ideas about what service is worth, the cable newsification of international conflict, the rise of an MTV-addled editing style, the empty consumerist impulses of a disaffected generation, and about 15 other capital-T themes. Released little more than a year after Steven Spielberg’s forcibly hallowed Saving Private Ryan, Three Kings is different—it’s reckless and sneering. Visually, it has a distorting, cauterized appearance. It combines a frenetic handheld shooting style shot on Ektachrome film stock that Russell used to create the feel of a dried-out newspaper with classical, majestic Steadicam movements. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke—who would go on to an accomplished directing career of her own—creates a tangible Iraq that feels not so much more exotic than suburban Arizona. (Which, of course, is where the movie was shot.) It often feels like a movie trying to drag your eye beyond the frame, whether moving quickly from busted-down bunker doors into tunnels filled with pilfered bounties or elegantly following a slow procession of Iraqi refugees traipsing across the desert landscape, a refurbished vision lifted from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

The Iraq citizens caught between Gates’s scheming troop and Saddam’s itinerant army in the aftermath of the cease-fire represent the movie’s aching heart, the storytelling device that separates this movie from Ocean’s 14: Just Desert. They also stand in for something real, the living collateral damage of George H.W. Bush’s showboating military chess match. The Persian Gulf War was famed for its overmanaged visual dynamism, with figures like General Norman Schwarzkopf comfortably escorting the press through the various stages of Western dominance in the Middle East. Clooney’s character is assigned a similar fate, guiding Nora Dunn’s Adriana Cruz, a steely Christiane Amanpour–esque reporter. It’s this degrading gig that drives him to banditry. He’s burned through his own integrity so he can help cable news hacks restage significant events in the conflict. He gets back to zero by robbing a mad dictator. This is a movie about values lost and regained.

Is it any wonder everyone was angry and neurotic throughout this shoot? Russell would go on to have more public blowouts—most notoriously with Lily Tomlin on the set of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees—and make films that garnered bigger box office returns and more awards. But Three Kings is his most brazen and thrilling work. This has become hackneyed phrasing in contemporary movie writing, but they really don’t make ’em like this anymore, telling stories this weird, violent, and caustic, right up until they turn simultaneously sentimental and critical of U.S. foreign policy. The conclusion is like a magic trick.

Near the climax, Ice Cube’s character downs an attacking helicopter by hurling a Nerf football stuffed with C4 at it. I can’t find a better metaphor for this movie. (Though the viscerally unnerving animation of what happens when a human body absorbs a bullet probably runs a close second.) It earned more than $100 million and was lauded by critics—it’s said to be one of Bill Clinton’s favorite movies released during his administration—but Three Kings hasn’t quite endured as the generational totem one might expect. It laid the groundwork for the next century’s sociopolitical struggles. The events of September 11 would arrive less than two years later and augur a misbegotten return to Iraq. The privatized military operations executed by companies like the Dick Cheney–led Halliburton that would follow reflect a generation of soldiers eager to get properly paid for their experience in conflict. The refugee crisis resonates clearly today, from Europe through Latin America and the Middle East. This movie saw the future, even if it doesn’t always seem present. It’s too angry, too confusing, too violent. It’s a lot like war.