October 01, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Three Kings

Current Status
In Season
George Clooney, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Mark Wahlberg
David O. Russell
War, Drama, Action Adventure
We gave it a B

When one of the heroes of director David O. Russell’s Three Kings, a young Army sergeant named Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), gets thrown into a makeshift prison, he spies a box full of cellular phones, finds one that works, and calls his wife — who immediately picks up from her kitchen back in the States.

The funny thing is, you absolutely believe that he could make that call. ”Three Kings” isn’t a comedy, exactly, but it has a hipster’s detachment, one that’s meant to mirror the jadedness of contemporary soldiers who are insulated from the very combat for which they’ve been trained.

In Iraq, just after the U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm, Barlow and two other Americans, Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), stumble upon a map revealing a stash of Kuwaiti gold bullion that has been stolen by Saddam Hussein’s thugs. (They find the map sticking out of a wounded soldier’s butt.) The Americans may have beaten back Saddam, but they know that it was a triumph of technology more than valor.

They’re high-concept winners in a war fought — and broadcast — mostly on video screens, and so they don’t feel quite victorious; they feel restless. Under the command of Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), the film’s cynical/noble Humphrey Bogart figure, they decide to go in and swipe the gold for themselves. The plan, of course, blows up in their faces, creating an ironic surrogate for a battle they barely got to fight.

”Three Kings” takes a comfortable proletarian view of Desert Storm. It salutes the soldiers on both sides of the conflict and tweaks President Bush for failing to sustain the U.S. commitment to the Iraqi rebels. On some level, that’s an unassailable stance, but I’d have appreciated it more if it didn’t issue from a movie that took such a disreputable boys’-club delight in images of trucks careering madly over land mines or a bomb being tossed like a football. ”Three Kings” is so overstuffed with random fireworks that despite its politics, it’s easy to imagine the film getting a four-star rave from Bush or Saddam.

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