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You can’t blame Warner Bros. for trying to sell the hard-to-categorize Three Kings as a war movie, basing its ad campaign on a still of gun-toting George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube striding across Iraqi desert sands. But if you look closely, you’ll notice some peculiar details. The three soldiers carry Louis Vuitton luggage, and, behind them, on each side of the frame, can be glimpsed a luxury automobile.

The incongruity of this image suggests the freshness and complexity of writer-director David O. Russell’s action comedy-drama, set in 1991 during the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. Anyone familiar with Russell’s previous efforts—Spanking the Monkey (1994), a comedy about masturbation and incest, and 1996’s Flirting With Disaster, which, among its other infractions, dented Mary Tyler Moore’s halo—knows better than to expect a standard-issue war picture from this iconoclastic filmmaker. Graduating from low-budget independents to a large-scale production, Russell has not muted his determination to challenge and startle viewers.

Unlike the much-praised American Beauty, a new bottle stocked with old wine, Three Kings is innovative in both style and content. Its sole antecedent is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, the irreverent Korean War black comedy that, three decades ago, changed the way filmmakers portrayed military engagements. If anything, Russell’s movie is more daring in its disenchanted depiction of high-tech, media-driven warfare and American xenophobia, as well as in its outspoken contempt for George Bush’s craven hit-and-run abandonment of Iraqi rebels after the Persian Gulf War.

The film opens on the day of the Desert Storm cease-fire. The punning first line of dialogue—a soldier asks, “Are we shooting?”—alerts us that what follows will require our full concentration. Four soldiers, bored with marking time in a bleak desert base camp while war is waged in the skies, obtain a map indicating the locations of the bunkers where Saddam Hussein has stashed stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion. (This document is retrieved from the sphincter of an Iraqi prisoner, inspiring a volley of bawdy gags.) Instead of turning the map over to their superiors, the four decide to claim the treasure for themselves. Commandeering a Humvee, they hatch a plan to leave camp at dawn, steal the gold bars, and return by lunchtime.

Of course, their scheme goes awry. In an elaborate series of misadventures, some farcical, some harrowing, the soldiers are forced to confront the plight of the Iraqis who resisted Saddam and, with the imminent departure of American forces, are doomed to become victims of his goon squads. Intimate contact with these courageous people, previously viewed from a distance and contemptuously regarded as “towelheads” and “sand niggers,” forces the renegade soldiers to acknowledge their humanity and abandon the treasure hunt in order to save their lives.

Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel have devised a striking visual style for Three Kings. Employing a bleach-bypass process that leaves a layer of silver on the film negative, they have created parched, hallucinatory images for the film’s opening sequences: white sand and white sky broken only by the soldiers’ drab camouflage fatigues. Later, when the soldiers begin to interact with the Iraqis, warmer colors gradually emerge to symbolize their increasing sense of engagement. Russell’s attention to form, usually a neutral factor in commercial filmmaking, illustrates how powerfully imagery can be used to express content.

Enduring an arduous three-and-a-half-month shooting schedule in oppressive desert locations in California, Arizona, and Mexico, the acting ensemble appears convincingly battle-weary. The two pop-music refugees are particularly impressive. Wahlberg projects palpable sweetness and sincerity as a young sergeant homesick for his wife and infant daughter, and Ice Cube is equally effective as a stoic, religious staff sergeant about to return to his thankless job as a Detroit airport baggage handler. In his acting debut, music-video director Spike Jonze (whose highly anticipated first directorial effort, Being John Malkovich, is scheduled for release later this year) walks away with his scenes as a volatile redneck private thrust into situations he’s not equipped to handle. Nora Dunn has some tart moments as an aggressive, profane television war correspondent determined to break a big story. Top-billed Clooney brings grizzled handsomeness to his role as a Green Beret career soldier and is never less than competent, but he’s the least impressive member of the cast. As with Gregory Peck, his movie-star looks tend to work against him, creating a mask that inhibits his attempts at developing a character.

Three Kings is too crammed with provocative themes and explosive encounters to detail in the space of a review, but several things particularly impressed me. Early on, as Clooney explains what happens when a person is shot in the stomach, Russell cuts to a subcutaneous shot of viscera penetrated by a bullet, an image that he later reprises when one of the lead characters is wounded. Clearly, this is one movie that can’t be accused of glamorizing violence. Throughout the film, Russell wittily demonstrates the international permeation of American culture. The Rodney King beating flickers on a TV set. Iraqis covet blue jeans, munch Slim Jims, and inquire, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” The planet truly has become a global village. Russell’s screenplay is bluntly outspoken about the U.S.’s unacknowledged motive for launching Desert Storm—not to liberate Kuwait but to protect our oil supply—and a half-dozen times excoriates Bush’s premature retreat from Iraq, leaving Saddam in power to slaughter his own countrymen. I doubt that any reasonable person will exit this movie without questioning whether it would be wise to install another Bush in the White House.

Ultimately, Three Kings might be too resourceful for its own good. Its two-hour pileup of multilevel plots, tense action sequences, gallows humor, abrupt tonal shifts, inventive visual effects, and thorny political and moral questions is likely to wear down viewers. By the time Russell reached his darkly uplifting denouement, I was as exhausted as if I had just witnessed a demolition derby. Hollywood’s endless stream of no-brainers has left us ill-equipped to absorb such a demanding experience. But in an era when movies leave us with so little to mull over, it’s churlish to criticize one that offers too much.

A terrible sea change afflicts talented television sketch comedians in transition to theatrical films. With a handful of exceptions—Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Al Franken in the underrated Stuart Saves His Family leap to mind—the writer-comics of Saturday Night Live and SCTV have generally struck out on the big screen. It’s difficult to tally up the number of stinkers amassed by John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, and their cohorts.

Now the Canadians of Kids in the Hall have graduated to features and the results, to date, have been similarly dire. Their collective effort, Brain Candy (1996), turned out to be a pale shadow of their uproarious small-screen vignettes, and their individual efforts thus far have made little impression. Bruce McCulloch, celebrated for his portrayals of hostile, dull-witted adolescents on the Kids series, makes his debut as a writer-director with Dog Park, a dating comedy as effervescent as the contents of a canine’s water dish.

The locus of McCulloch’s screenplay is a dog run where lovelorn 30-somethings exercise their pets. Classified ad writer Andy (Luke Wilson, a mongrel mix of Dennis Weaver and David Steinberg) has been dumped by his live-in girlfriend, Cheryl (annoyingly shrill Kathleen Robertson), with whom he shares custody of his dog, Mogley. Although his confidante, Jeri (Janeane Garofalo in yet another know-it-all role), advises him to take a respite from dating, Andy falls for TV kid-show host Lorna (butch, morose Natasha Henstridge, far more enticing as the lethal half-alien in Species), another recently abandoned dog owner, whom he encounters in a singles bar. Denying their initial attraction, each has a brief fling—Andy with a sexually insatiable blond Valkyrie, Lorna with a nerd she meets in a video store—before realizing that they were meant for each other.

If there are any laughs in this Toronto-shot comedy, I failed to find them. Even if there were, the film’s depressive visual style—oversaturated home-movie color photography, shadowy lighting, unflattering close-ups—would surely squelch them. McCulloch saddles himself with the thankless role of Garofalo’s longtime companion and sticks his erstwhile Kids colleague Mark McKinney (creator of the show’s incomparably horny Chicken Lady) with the Charles Grodin-ish part of a dog psychologist who caters to the neurotic pets of estranged couples.

Realizing that it had a bow-wow on its hands, New Line Cinema, the movie’s distributor, chose not to screen Dog Park for the press until the night before its release, thereby short-circuiting opening-weekend reviews. You’d think that other companies would rather give McCulloch a lethal injection than hire him to direct a follow-up project. Think again: His second feature, Superstar, opens next week. CP