Three Kings Review: Looking Back at David O. Russell’s Possible Masterpiece

Three Kings

David O. Russell is an interesting director who, with his rather short filmography, has created an eclectic mix of movies. With his new film, Silver Linings Playbook, recently being released theatrically, I decided to take a look back at a film that many would consider his best work, and with good reason.

Three Kings is a film in which the protagonists of the plot begin the film with questionable intentions and then as the story evolves, the characters are tested and tried by being put into situations that help them understand the true consequences and realities of war. Set Iraq at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the film is one that touches on many different aspects of war, from politics to media coverage, as well as adding a very personal experience for the soldiers involved.

Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are the three characters referenced by the title, and along for the ride is Conrad Vig, played by Spike Jonze. The story revolves around the soldiers finding a map that reveals the location of gold that was stolen from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. The four soldiers develop a plan to steal the gold in order to live the good life back in the U.S. Needless to say, the events don’t quite play out according to plan, as the group discovers some disturbing behavior between the Iraqi soldiers and the rebellion and get caught in a battle between the people or Iraq and an army with which the United States has agreed to a cease fire.

The key to what makes this Three Kings particularly effective is balance. There is a middle ground in this movie that is hit right on the spot, which allows the film to mix itself into multiple genres. What this allows the film to do is develop a sense of humor without becoming offensive while being a poignant and meaningful story at the same time.

The journey of the three main characters is well-paced and creates a necessary role for each person. All of them have something to lose or something to gain by going on a mission that is essentially a heist. Troy Barlow may be the most sympathetic of the protagonists, with a newborn child waiting at home for him. Chief Elgin is a character who, in the film’s own words, considers the trip a 4 month vacation from Detroit. Archie Gates is the wise one, who has the opportunity to become a face for the military and develop a relationship with the press. All of these men face decisions throughout the film that force them to understand the importance of the events in which they are caught in the middle.

This is not just an ordinary war film. It’s a stylish thriller and political drama that puts on display how war doesn’t end simply because someone declares peace. There aren’t really any glaringly weak performances in the movie and the mood shifts appropriately as the story moves along. The action is coherent and the Americans are deeply flawed characters who are well developed without the need of too much exposition.

This is a film that not only remains relevant today, but also brings to the forefront some themes that will always be important in war and in peace. Three Kings may not be the flashiest or biggest war films of it’s time, but it certainly is worth watching and may end up being an overlooked classic by the time it becomes old enough.


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I'm Kevin Licht, a graduate from the University of Missouri with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor emphasis in Film Studies. When I'm not working I watch and write

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  1. Hadoken

    Admittedly, I never appreciated this movie as much as my mates did. However reading this gives me some points to reflect on. I will dust off that old DVD and watch this again…

  2. Taylor Ramsey

    I enjoyed this film when it came out and found I never watched it on video. To be honest almost any film with Clooney in it is worth a look. I do agree this is the best of the directors films to date, and it still holds up well.

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