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— Woody Allen, Curse of the Jade Scorpion

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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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David O. Russell uses the Gulf War as a backdrop for his ironic, thoughtful film about war, freedom, and greed.

The three title characters (plus a fourth), all U.S. army, find a map to Kuwaiti gold in a wounded Iraqi soldier at the end of the war. Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) leads his small team on an expedition to find the gold. The map takes them into the heart of Iraq, where they finally meet people who aren’t soldiers. Some are villagers, some are police, and some are resistance fighters, and each group has a different take on America.

The civilians are inclined to greet the Americans as heroes. The villagers believed the political promises of President Bush, and are expecting to be governed justly by the occupying force. Archie doesn’t know how — or whether — to break the bad news to them, that there is no occupying force and that Bush could not care less about the oppression of Iraqi peasants.

They get a strange reaction from the police force, which is an internal branch of Saddam Hussein’s army. Archie is savvy enough to predict that the police will ignore the Americans and go about their business of repressing the civilians. Though the G.I.s (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) fear for their lives when the Iraqis show up with guns, their commander turns out to be right — the police ignore them.

Greed tells the Americans to be grateful for this strange behavior. Now they can grab the gold and leave. But their curiosity, valor, and outrage are also stimulated. Should they take the money and run? Shouldn’t they protect the civilians? Should they attack the police? If they intervene, are they creating more war?

The plot contrives to bring the Americans through several war movie vignettes — the resistance fighters, capture and torture, a resettlement camp — and Russell brings irony and social commentary into each one.

For example, one of the Americans is tortured by an Iraqi soldier who rips on the social bankruptcy of American culture. He forces his American prisoner to drink crude oil by cramming a compact disc into his mouth as a makeshift funnel. Oil — the stuff America was fighting for — becomes something to be reviled. And a compact disc — a symbol of the high technology good life — becomes complicit in the torture of an American. (The irony goes deeper when you remember that the American is played by former recording artist Marky Mark [Wahlberg]).

One could make the case that Russell has put in too many metaphors, or too much irony. You could say that this movie’s message is heavy-handed. On the other hand, I’m more inclined to hate a movie that doesn’t capitalize on the chance to make a statement, that’s all plot and no meaning. So on the whole, I’d prefer Russell’s approach.

Along with the thoughtful commentary, Russell provides a uniquely appropriate look. The film seems overexposed and bleached. The only colors are desert yellow and anemic sky blue. The cinematography feels dazedly sunstroked, giving the movie’s irony an almost surreal logic.

Three Kings sounds like a great movie, and indeed many critics call it one of the year’s best. But somehow, as soon as the credits rolled, the whole experience evaporated. By the time I hit the parking lot the film and its impact might as well have been mirages.

I’d like to see Three Kings again to catch any of the messages that I might have missed, and to see if it has any more power after a second viewing. I’d like to think it was a modern masterpiece, but for now, I’m withholding my judgment.