NEW YORK — One of the ads for "Three Kings" quotes a film critic calling it "the savviest, wittiest war movie in years." This raises the interesting question of whether wittiness is one of the qualities a war movie ought to have.
There's a great deal of dark humor in classics like "M*A*S*H" and "Dr. Strangelove," of course, but those are antiwar movies with pointed messages to deliver.
For a few welcome moments scattered here and there in the story, "Three Kings" makes sharp comments of its own, shining a bitter light on the cruelty and absurdity of war in general and the Persian Gulf War in particular.
But most of its running time is taken up with a noisy celebration of guns and gore, via a steady stream of shootings, explosions, chases, and the nastiest torture scene this side of a Mel Gibson movie.
While boisterous laughs aren't missing from the package, "wit" is hardly its most conspicuous trait, even if it was directed by David O. Russell, whose previous pictures - "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster" - are justly respected comedies.
The overall shallowness of "Three Kings" is especially regrettable since so much genuine talent has gone into the picture.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube give ferocious performances as the main characters, American soldiers who segue from the Gulf War to a clandestine search for gold bullion hidden in Saddam Hussein's secret stash, eventually getting involved in the plight of terror-stricken refugees.
The filmmaking is even more impressive, as director Russell makes the screen swirl with hard-hitting images and boldly imaginative editing, then relaxes the pace at just the right moments to hammer home the screenplay's intermittent outrage over the horror and hatred that warfare inevitably brings.
If that outrage were more consistently felt and more coherently expressed, "Three Kings" would be an important movie on moral as well as technical grounds.
Its ideas and insights are ultimately drowned out by its sound and fury, though, making it a snazzily filmed entertainment rather than a meaningful experience. It may make money, but it won't make much difference in the way we think or feel.
*Rated R; contains much explicit violence, brief sex, and foul language.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society