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Friday, April 7, 2000


Welcome to the new world disorder

The Gulf War as ripping adventure yarn? Well, why not? The first time around it was a made-for-TV movie anyway, complete with special effects sequences, a three-act narrative and a happy end. The only problem lies in coming up with an angle. Thrilling action movies require risk, peril and direct confrontation, and Operation Desert Storm was about avoiding all that, a conflict as one-sided as a thump-the-mole arcade game.

To his credit, director David O. Russell ("Flirting With Disaster") manages to make that cynical point while still delivering the action-packed goods in his latest film, "Three Kings." Faced with a lack of exciting real-life material, Russell chose to invent some, re-fashioning "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" into the search for Hussein's gold. In place of Bogey we have George Clooney as a burned-out, self-interested officer who finds, much to his own surprise, that he does have a conscience after all.

It's March 1991, and the Gulf War has ended almost as soon as it started. The American infantrymen, rounding up Iraqi prisoners in the Kuwaiti desert, are as confused as their foes.

"Are we shooting?" asks Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), before putting a bullet through the head of a gun-holding Iraqi just to make sure. "Congratulations, my man," offers another soldier in his squad. "I didn't think I'd get a chance to see somebody shot in this war." Back at the base camp, Major Archie Gates (Clooney) a media liaison, shakes his head, grumbling "I don't even know what we did here."

Their lack of a sense of purpose quickly fades, however, when opportunity knocks in the form of a mysterious map, found on a captured Iraqi by Sgt. Barlow. Joined by Barlow's buddies, cool-headed Sgt. Elgin (Ice Cube), goofy redneck Pvt. Vig ("Being John Malkovich" director Spike Jonez), Gates and Barlow commandeer a Humvee, and set off into Iraq to locate the bunkers where the plundered wealth of Kuwait is hidden.

This is all rather dodgy, as they're doing it under the noses of their superiors, and -- although a ceasefire is in effect -- the Iraqi Republican Guard is engaged in a shooting war with Shiite rebels. As the Americans try to stay focused on getting rich quick, they find themselves -- a la Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" -- forced to make a moral decision, when they stumble upon Iraqi troops rounding up a bunch of civilians for the torture chambers. (In fact, the long silence that follows the first shot fired as everybody tries to figure out what comes next, is lifted straight out of "The Wild Bunch." If you're gonna steal, steal big.)

Russell keeps the film moving along at a breathless pace, careening through breathless cat-and-mouse shootouts in underground bunkers full of looted Louis Vuitton bags and cell phones, and an unbelievably tense sequence in which the Americans find themselves caught in the middle of a minefield, as the mist of a gas attack renders visibility near zero.

While "Three Kings" is a fairly traditional tale, Russell makes it something more by bringing a bit of an "Apocalypse Now" sensibility to it, capturing the surreal chaos of modern war.

Russell keeps his critique of the war backgrounded, but it's surely built into the plot's premise. It's no accident that the press is in bed with the military (literally, in the case of a female reporter and Clooney), that it's pure greed that motivates the soldiers' intervention, or that the treasure map is found stashed up an Iraqi prisoner's bunghole (nice metaphor, that).

Ultimately, the film is too cynical for its own good. The happy end it arrives at -- with the Americans helping one group of Shiites to refuge in Iran -- can only highlight the fact that in real life, these rebels were left to die like dogs, despite having been encouraged to rise up by U.S. President Bush. Perhaps that's why people prefer to keep the untarnished memory of victory in '91 intact, and why "Three Kings" underperformed at the box office.

Unlike the Gulf War, films on the Bosnian conflict began appearing before the blood even had time to dry. Indeed, cinema hasn't offered a chance to reflect on the war, so much as opened up another front in it: Witness the split reaction to Emir Kusturica's "Underground," or the interventionist bent of Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo." "Savior," made by Pretrag Antonijevic, is one of the more balanced films to appear on the conflict, and don't let the director's Serbian roots convince you otherwise.

If there were Academy Awards for the creative promotion of movies, then "Savior" would certainly sweep. Billed as Oliver Stone's "latest work," he actually only produced it; the director is Antonijevic. Billed as "starring Dennis Quaid, Nastassia Kinski and Stellan Skarsgaard ('Good Will Hunting')," only Quaid is still alive after the first reel.

Quaid's real costar is the unheralded Natasa Ninkovic, who does a serviceable job with what is an unbelievably difficult role, that of a Serbian POW named Vera who, presumably raped, is released back to the Serbian side pregnant. Compounding the abuse suffered in captivity, she is beaten and ostracized by the Serbs for the "crime" of carrying a Muslim child. These same Serb soldiers, meanwhile, are out doing the same to Muslim women, the irony of which escapes their brutish little minds.

Her "savior" is an embittered American mercenary named Guy (Quaid), with a personal, revenge-driven hatred of Muslims. He's a man capable of putting a bullet through the head of a young boy if he's a Muslim, but even Guy hits his limit as he watches a brutal Serb paramilitary attempt to beat Vera into a miscarriage. Shooting Vera's tormentor is an act of no return for Guy, and when even her family rejects her, he is forced to get Vera and her newborn child to a U.N. agency before the Serbs catch and kill them both.

"Savior" is a difficult one to call: Antonijevic has some powerful points to make on the pathological sexism that was such an ugly component of the Balkan conflicts, but his setups and delivery are rather heavy-handed, even for a protege of Oliver Stone. Antonijevic seems less comfortable working with his actors, and the scenes between Quaid and Ninkovic always seem a little too staged, despite Quaid's best efforts at evoking a numbed man who is reluctant to let himself feel anything ever again.

"Savior" does have the power to shock, however, and Antonijevic's unflinching renditions of the war's brutality will haunt you long after the credits roll. Not a bad film, but it's certainly not up to the level of "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame," which remains the most incisive and eloquent look at the Bosnian madness so far.

"Three Kings" opens tomorrow at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan. "Savior" opens tomorrow at Ueno's Star Movie cinema.

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