After creating a Freudian black comedy with Spanking The Monkey and reviving screwball in Flirting With Disaster, David O. Russell has reinvented himself yet again. Three Kings, his latest, marks his arrival as the creator of subversive mainstream genre films; even if, given his track record, it's not a label he's likely to keep for long, he wears it well. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze star as U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq just after the end of the Gulf War. A prisoner's map puts them on the trail of a fortune in gold stolen from Kuwait, and soon takes them to a small village where they believe it to be hidden. There, against the better judgement of some, they find themselves involved with villagers eager to rebel against Saddam Hussein. Working from a story by novelist John Ridley, writer-director Russell has created an exciting, politically charged adventure movie that combines the dark, fringes-of-war atmosphere of Apocalypse Now with elements more familiar to films in which Americans tote guns. Using action sequences sparingly, and thus effectively, Russell creates a palpable sense of danger. Consequently, it's never clear where Three Kings is going, and where it does go is often uncharted territory for action movies, as the protagonists find themselves encountering characters on both sides of the Gulf conflict who cause them to question their perceptions of the war itself and American foreign policy in general. A refreshingly smart, universally well-acted film with sharp humor (even if the latter creates some jarring shifts in tone), Three Kings, like The Matrix, is everything mainstream Hollywood films can be but usually aren't: formula-breaking, thoughtful, subversive, exciting, and risky.
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