Three Kings introduces us to American soldiers who love their job. They think it’s a joke, it’s funny, and can be played with. Little do they realize that’s not the case, stuck in the Middle East with a chance at some of Sadaam’s hidden gold.

They laugh, exchange one-liners, and have fun. The film is high on satire, taking jabs at not only the attitude, but the reasons for the war. No one seems to actually have an idea of why they’re placed in the middle of nowhere, the people never saved and the mission never completed despite a media frenzy over the end of combat.

That satire never actually leaves the film despite the situation turning grim. Our three leads, Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) make a run for the gold, hidden within a bunker, when Iraq troops begin an assault. The situation collapses, a simple heist turned into a rescue mission, combat scenarios, and helping those caught in the middle of it all.

It’s rare that a film can balance various forms of satire, both in comedic and dramatic forms. In fact, it’s outstanding that it works at all. The switch is rapid, from one moment giving us laughing and playing around while the groups sloppily invade the bunker, to a switch where they are bombed with gas, one of them being taken captive while refugees seek cover.

It’s a transformation for them all. It’s easy to see this script, credited to John Ridley and director David O. Russell (this after a behind-the-scenes squabble over the credit), having nothing but fun with the topic, the characters and performances lively enough to sell the entire story. Despite their faults and even a little blind ignorance, they love what they do on a base level. Who wouldn’t appreciate that?

Their increasingly crazy struggle simply to stay alive, the gold slowly becoming secondary, continues to build them as true characters, not general Hollywood summer action stars. Drenched in cow blood and showered with milk, their adventure never slows down, keeping the aggressive narrative moving, the entertainment, political jabs, and personal feelings of the war in tune with each other. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]

Three Kings utilizes multiple Kodak stocks, one of them not even used for film, but slide transparencies. That is to say, nearly ever scene looks different in terms of contrast, color saturation, and depth. The film’s opening shot in the middle of the desert is washed out, the contrast is pumped up, and almost everything but the sky has been drained of color. Wait a while and when the soldiers move into town, the sky and flesh tones take on this neon hue, the sky so bright and vivid it becomes a character on its own. You can’t miss it.

Despite all of the styles used, Three Kings is still quite the visual treat. A close-up of Mark Wahlberg at 1:56 sets the stage for a plethora of well defined, rendered facial detail. This remains consistent, even in the mid-range where high-fidelity detail is wholly rendered and crisp. Sharpness rarely wavers, barring those rare shots where the idiosyncrasies of the film stock step in. There is an odd shot of Clooney at 19:19, the neon color now standard at this point, but his face is weirdly smooth, almost smothered by the color. It’s a rare instance.

Black crush is generally severe, although like the color, purely by design. It goes along with the hefty contrast, bleaching detail fairly regularly, creating an image that is nothing if not striking. It’s hard to make an argument against this film’s depth, despite the lack of shadow detail.

The encode itself (VC-1) decently resolves the grain structure. The color seems to be the reason why it tends to stand out, appearing slightly noisy, although natural nonetheless (assuming anyone is familiar with a slide’s grain structure). In other words, it does not appear bit-rate starved. During the gas attack scene around 48-minutes in, some chroma noise makes it presence felt, the sequence lasting quite a few minutes. The noise is a bit of a constant, if not offensively so. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

A DTS-HD mix lacks some punch on the low-end, the highlight being a mine going off when a vehicle drives over it. Bass here is clean and punchy, the car actually sent into the air before it lands on a second mine, creating subwoofer-activating explosion #2. Later, when a helicopter is taken down, its explosion is greeted by a bit of a sputter, the real jolt coming when it hits the ground. A tank shot at 54:45 is wonderful in terms of the low-end too, not overwhelming but natural.

“Natural” can define the gunfire as well, existing on the high-end with crisp pops. A shoot-out around 24-minutes in captures plenty of immersion-inducing surround work, the placement active in all channels. The mild truck explosion also creates a pretty impressive splashing effect once the side bursts open, a nice (if brief) showcase of the sound designs ability to track front to back.

Released in 1999, Three Kings certainly benefits from all of the modern audio design perks, the dialogue in perfect balance and its presence clean. There is nothing positional about it, kept strictly to the center, but it’s audible at times, whether amidst the heaviest of action or those quieter dialogue-driven scenes. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]

Three Kings is given a nice set of bonus features, beginning with two commentaries. Director David O. Russell goes solo first, while producers Charles Roven and Edward McDonnell back him up in track two. Under the Bunker is the first featurette, easy to glaze over given how generic it is.

Far better is Cinematography of Three Kings, where cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel discusses the look of specific scenes, including the weird choice of film stocks. On the Set of Three Kings looks at the set design and its challenges. A video journal kept by the director runs 13:37. Six minutes of deleted scenes carry an optional commentary by Russell, followed a goofy piece that dissects Ice Cube’s acting style. It’s funny stuff. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]

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