Westerns come in many shapes and sizes. There are vampire Westerns (Near Dark), space Westerns (Battle Beyond The Stars), British crime Westerns (Get Carter)... And now, with the arrival of Three Kings, you can add the Middle Eastern Western - or simply Middle Eastern - to the ever-mutating genre.
Of course, we're not talking gunslingers versus the Republican Guard here ("Saddam's gotta do what Saddam's gotta do..."). On the face of it, Three Kings is a Gulf War-set heist drama, with a fair sprinkling of comedy and one or two road movie-ish elements mixed in for good measure. But once you sink beneath the surface, you realise why the movie feels so familiar - it sticks to all the conventions of the classic Western. Storywise, it's kinda like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly meets The Magnificent Seven.
Clooney and co are, obviously, the cowboy-equivalents, with gorgeous George taking on the cynical, world-weary rogue-hero role. Initially, he's out for personal gain, but soon realises he has a duty to help the oppressed Iraqis he encounters struggling to survive on this particular frontier. Think of them as oppressed Mexican villagers and the marauding Iraqi soldiers as a large gang of banditos, and you've got your custom-made Western set-up.
It's not too clear whether this was a deliberate move by writer/director David O Russell, but it's amazing what can slip into a movie without the creator even noticing, especially when there's so much intelligent stuff packed in there in the first place. For example, Three Kings is, remarkably, one of the first big Hollywood movies to treat the Iraqis as something other than just the "enemy". Here, the complications of the situation in the Gulf are recognised, with the Iraqi citizens as much a victim of US foreign policy as Saddam's tyranny.
Russell also offers a new spin on the "realities of violence" angle, presenting gun battles in which few bullets fly, but every bit of lead counts. In one scene, each slug is tracked in slow motion from barrel to target, following its trajectory between Iraqi and American and vice versa. In another, we even follow the bullet through its target's internal organs and watch the pus-squirting after-effects, while Clooney provides a mini-lecture on the specifics of gunshot wounds.
Yet despite some heavyweight topic-shoving and a few harrowing outbursts of violence, Russell manages to keep the tone light and snappy, and the script is rich with humour. Surprisingly, most of the laughs come courtesy of Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze as Conrad, a white-trash loser who's thicker than tank armour. With his lazy, Southern drawl and dumb hick take on every situation, Jonze comes close to heisting nearly every scene he's in. At the same time he plays up the idea that Conrad desperately wants to transcend his stupidity through emulating Troy, thus injecting a dose of pathos.
But Clooney, Wahlberg and Cube easily hold their own. It's good to see that Marky Mark is still capable of mustering a good performance; after The Big Hit and The Corruptor, it looked like Boogie Nights could have been a freak occurrence. One scene in particular - which involves an intense torture session - manages to convince you he can plumb hidden depths. Cube, meanwhile, similarly tweaks his favoured on-screen persona (moody, doesn't suffer fools gladly) as an unexpected sense of companionship develops between Chief and Conrad, despite the latter's casual racism.
Three Kings also provides further proof that, after he was stung by Batman&Robin, Clooney has developed a knack for picking the right script. It's amazing how he can bring some good old-fashioned star-presence to a movie like this without allowing it to sacrifice any subtlety or complexity as a result. With the likes of The Perfect Storm and O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the way, chances are that Clooney will end up as this year's Man Who Can Do No Wrong. Still, George-lover or not, Three Kings can't fail to thrill you. Set your sights on it now.