It is 1991 and the Gulf War has just ended with Saddam Hussein's Iraqi military forced back out of Kuwait which they had recently invaded. The Kuwaitis had achieved this by calling on their allies in the United States to provide the might that got the job done, and the U.S. troops are celebrating even though many of the ground soldiers do not feel as if they did very much as most of the fighting took the form of dropping bombs on the enemy, meaning the actual operation was more or less conducted remotely. That does not stop them from being jubilant, but now they have to get their hands dirty by arresting the Iraqi troops they do find who have survived the bombings - and this is where it gets complicated.
Of course, when Three Kings was being crafted it wasn't the first Gulf War that was making the headlines, it was the war between director David O. Russell and his leading man George Clooney that people were interested in, thanks to reports from the set about them constantly being at loggerheads and even getting into a physical altercation at one point when tempers became heated (or even more heated). The film itself survived these controversies, and went on to do comfortably at the box office, though it was never a huge blockbuster, a cult following building up soon after among those who appreciated its take on war and how the ordinary soldier fares against what were now modern conflicts.
That take was initially a gonzo one - there was even a reporter (Nora Dunn) trying to make sense of the events, though she was far more straightforward than anything we saw unfolding with Clooney's Archie Gates and his team. But once it got so far in, the mood changed to something more serious, as if to say yes, we've all had fun, but the fact remains people die in war, things are destroyed that could have benefitted a lot of folks, and ties that could have improved their lot in life are severed, leaving nothing but turmoil that merely propagates the next war, in a cycle that nobody knows how to break. Quite a lot to take on board for what was promoted as a wiseacre comedy about the military in a much-maligned situation.
Gates and that team of three others, Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (director Spike Jonze in a rare acting role), find out about a hoard of gold held by the Iraqis somewhere in the desert, and mean to take at least some of it for themselves. That they are alerted to this by a map found in the rectum of a prisoner of war has you thinking they're going for laughs, but in fact while there were a few chuckles to be gained, for the most part Three Kings (not a Christmas movie, despite the title) was deceptively serious minded. Vig may be a humorous hick character, for instance, but what happens to him is nothing to laugh about, and Barlow ends up getting electroshock torture from the Iraqis during a lecture about precisely what the implications and repercussions of the American (and British, though they are not mentioned) activities in the region were.
This showed its true colours when it came down to the refugees who had been displaced by the war, a bunch of much-abused individuals who begin to tug on the heartstrings of the four gold-seekers when they wake up to the notion that this is not game of soldiers, real people died and many others' lives were ruined as they were caught in the middle of a conflict they had no real interest in: they preferred not to be ruled by a dictator, but they were also none too happy about having their homes blown up by U.S. missiles. We constantly see and hear examples of Western influence as Saddam's men stash the expensive accoutrements of that foreign lifestyle as something to aspire to, but only as far as amassing wealth goes, and as the gold is Kuwaiti, our anti-heroes are really stealing from those they had officially been hired to protect. It could have been bone deep cynical, yet somehow Russell, who wrote the script, cops out before the end and has his hardened tough guys' hearts melt, very much having its cake and eating it too as they get to play the hero for real, standing in for American national self-image as the world's benevolent policemen. It was well assembled, but a lot did not sit right about it. Music by Carter Burwell.