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"Three Kings" isn't your typical action flick--it's way better

By Jim Ridley

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  If American moviegoers got regular chances to see the movies coming out of the Middle East and Central Europe, would we be so quick to bomb those areas when unrest flares? Art is certainly no cure for armed aggression, but entertainment shapes so much of our worldview that it's worth wondering how indifferent we'd be if the governing image we got of Arabs came from, say, the Iranian film Taste of Cherry instead of The Mummy.

Of course, The Mummy fits most Americans' definition of entertainment a lot easier than Taste of Cherry. That's at least in part because The Mummy is Hollywood product, it's in English--and it has the promotion budget to carpet-bomb itself into the public consciousness. Thus American audiences stand a much better chance of seeing a movie in which Arabs are foul, smelly bit players than one in which their lives, jobs, and culture take center stage.

Seeing century-old ethnic stereotypes reinforced at the movies doesn't sound like a big deal. But it is, because we receive so much information about other cultures secondhand from movies--and that information ends up shaping everything from personal encounters to foreign policy. Ironically enough, that's among the themes of Three Kings, a crackling Gulf War satire that also happens to be a big-budget Hollywood action movie.

The antiheroes of Three Kings are four U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq during the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. Just before clearing out, Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (George Clooney) hatches a scheme with three reservists--Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief (Ice Cube), and Vig (Spike Jonze)--to break into one of Saddam Hussein's fortified stashes of stolen Kuwaiti bullion. They'll escape with tens of millions in gold, and the combat-starved Vig will finally see some action.

Action--the term is fitting for Vig's Rambo-esque video-game notion of warfare, which makes sense under the circumstances. As several characters observe, Desert Storm is "a media war," and anyone who remembers CNN's gripping POV shots of U.S. "smart bombs" destroying Iraqi targets won't dispute the claim. What Gates and his men learn when they leave the safety of their camp, though, is that the rest of the world is much more savvy about America than the soldiers are about the country they've invaded. And the previously faceless enemy, seen closer than a bomber's screen or a rifle sight, suddenly looks an awful lot like them: new businessmen, new fathers...new mourners.

This being an American action movie--and, we should add, a damn good one--the focus is more on the soldiers' path to redemption than on the displaced Iraqi civilians they aid in a desperate flight from the country. What's surprising is the movie's condemnation of American ignorance and arrogance in the Gulf War, including the abandonment of Shiite and Kurdish rebels who'd been encouraged to rise up against Saddam Hussein. The gold hunt turns the American soldiers into thieves and potential killers for money, and the movie has the guts to use their larky mission as a metaphor for the war itself.

The movie's gifted writer-director, David O. Russell, makes other analogies that are just as ballsy and astute. When Vig launches into a tirade about Arabs as "dune coons," Chief immediately bristles; it's a cutting reminder of how much unconscious racism underlies the war. As for the zipless violence that's an American cinema trademark, Russell has Gates give a gruesome lecture on what a bullet does to a human body, and he shows us: organs tearing in close-up, drowning in bile.

Yet Three Kings remains an expert major-studio entertainment--brash, exciting, and rudely funny--and as such it'll be seen by an audience that probably doesn't even know Iraq has its own film industry and pop culture. And the movie has Arab characters who don't fit the usual stereotypes of burnooses and inscrutable menace--the kind who might've wised up Vig, if he'd had any access to them. I'd tell you their names, but most of them have been omitted from the press kit. In America, that's showbiz.

Double vision

From the moment we see them, we have questions. Twins are always striking, but when the two are joined at the side--two men with only two arms between them, and three legs--we immediately want to know more about how they make it through a day. Do they have jobs? How do they handle their bodily functions? And then a woman speaks up and chastises us. "Maybe it's not meant to be figured out," she says. "They're not a puzzle."

The woman is Penny, an aspiring model turned prostitute played by Michele Hicks in the film Twin Falls Idaho. The filmmaking team of Mark and Michael Polish plays the conjoined twins, Blake and Francis Falls, who have hired Penny as a birthday treat. When Francis, the weaker twin, gets sick, Penny's initial revulsion toward the pair turns to curiosity and then to compassion as she develops a romantic attachment to Blake.

Twin Falls Idaho is the Polish brothers' first film, and it has some of the raw, grating edges of a low-budget debut. The pace is somnambulant, which may be meant to cover for the frail, small-voiced performances given by all the principles. Also, much of the imagery and symbolism in the film is thuddingly blatant--two-dollar bills and chopsticks pulled apart are meant to cue the audience to the Falls' inherent value as a matched set.

But as much as we may be impatient for the characters to speak up and tell us more about themselves, we're all the more intrigued by the mystery surrounding the Falls' appearance in Penny's city (which seems to be New York), and what secrets they may be telling when they whisper to each other. The Polish brothers play up the squalor of their characters' fleabag hotel to underscore that even in a landscape of freaks, the Falls are marked as a spectacle--an idea that is further developed in the film's magnificent centerpiece. At a Halloween party where the duo's condition could be mistaken for one fabulous costume, Blake and Francis are still cautious, stuck to each other, and out of place. Even when the main plot underwhelms us, Twin Falls Idaho is still curiously insinuating, as we scrutinize this one body for two men and try to understand why they don't make even the simplest effort to fit in.

That's the puzzle again--the one we're not supposed to want to figure out. But though we may not be able to answer the questions surrounding the Falls' existence, we can guess why a set of real-life, non-conjoined twins might want to tell their story. It's a daring experiment--the Polish brothers examining the meaning and limits of their own fraternal relationship, and asking the audience to consider the human connections that sustain us. That's why, even for us non-twins, the film surprises us with an inescapably haunting question: How can you live your entire life with someone at your hip and still be lonely? --Noel Murray

Ugly beauty

The sick-soul-of-suburbia satire American Beauty left me with a lot of mixed feelings, but none of them is about Kevin Spacey. As Lester Burnham, a corporate drudge undergoing a severe midlife crisis, Spacey disappears within his character's defeated slump and stone-faced misery. When Lester suddenly reverts to adolescent fixations--muscle cars, burger-slinging, even a crush on his teenage daughter's nubile friend (Mena Suvari)--this remarkable actor makes his surge of passion both hilarious and heartbreaking. He's so particular in his nuances, gestures, and petulant mock-bravado that he creates an instant archetype--you can imagine the name "Lester Burnham" becoming pop-culture shorthand for a specific brand of middle-age craziness.

Spacey recently appeared on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh as Hickey, the destroyer of illusions; here director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball have taken on that role themselves. They lampoon an America throttled by the pressure to acquire, to put on a happy face, and to win, and they've given every character symbolic weight. That's where the mixed feelings come in.

Working with the excellent cinematographer Conrad Hall, Mendes, an acclaimed theater director, has made one of the most visually accomplished debut films in memory. His thematic use of lighting and color is spectacular. Like Godard in Contempt, he links a bloodless red with rampant consumerism, but when Lester sees his daughter's cheerleader friend bathed in rose petals, the red explodes into lurid, unattainable Technicolor. In effects like these, Mendes is audacious enough to remind you that Orson Welles and Bob Fosse started out in theater too.

Like Fosse, however, who receives a tip of the Sally Bowles derby in a dazzling cheerleading production number, Mendes can't resist wallowing in male self-pity. Lester gets a lot more sympathy from the director than his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a shrill, frigid self-help casualty whose obsession with appearances (the movie's leitmotif) is blamed for the collapse of their marriage. This could be explained away as Lester's twisted view, except the movie keeps revealing information Lester wouldn't know, like the relationship between his daughter (Thora Birch) and the seemingly morbid neighbor kid (Wes Bentley) who deals drugs and seeks beauty on black-and-white video.

These two teens' symbolic function--as an antidote to the misery, repressive brutality, and corruption of the adult world around them--is one of the subtle ways the movie flatters a young audience. There's precious little subtle, though, about the way Ball and Mendes fit the other characters into their social-problem roles. With Chris Cooper's abusive ex-Marine, their technique is to combine one dimension of villainy with one dimension of victimization, which doesn't add up to three dimensions.

You can also argue that American Beauty exploits a lot of the problems it condemns: The movie rightfully skewers the pressure on teenage girls to satisfy adult fetishes of budding sexuality and body image, and yet it still manages to show both Birch and Suvari topless. Leaving these issues aside, though, the film is a stunning display of cinematic technique and ambition--qualities in short supply at your local megaplex. And above all it has Kevin Spacey, whose performance alone makes the movie a must-see. When he hears that his daughter's in love, Lester's small but unsuppressable delight is a transcendent moment. In a movie filled with examples of fake beauty, Spacey's the real thing. --Jim Ridley

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