Friday, April 13, 2012

One Hell of a Poker Hand

Film: Three Kings; Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)
Format: DVD from personal collection (Three Kings) and from Rockford Public Library (Nueve Reinas) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I sort of remember when Three Kings was released. I remember it got pretty good reviews overall, but I never really had any strong desire to watch it. Then it turned up on The List, and when I encountered a copy for sale for a couple of dollars, and knowing I’d have to watch it eventually, I picked it up. Eventually finally turned up today.

The film takes place during the waning days of the first Iraqi war. We encounter (despite the sort of misleading name of the film) a quartet of American soldiers getting ready to rotate back home. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is a new father who just wants to get back to his new baby. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, far better known as a director) is a guy who never graduated from high school, and idolizes Barlow and everything he does. We also have Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), who is officious and just wants to get himself out of the war in one piece. Finally, there is Archie Gates (George Clooney), who has rank and good looks, is tasked with leading around a press correspondent named Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), but who is leaking her stories and having sex with other reporters on the side.

The plot takes off when Barlow discovers a map stuck into the rectum of a surrendering Iraqi soldier. The map evidently shows the location of several compounds controlled by Saddam Hussein and reported to be loaded with the various treasures he removed from Kuwait during his invasion. Naturally, this sets Barlow, his constant companion Vig, and Chief Elgin to thinking. But when Cruz gets wind of the map (and thus Gates finds out about it), everything kicks into high.

Basically, Gates shows up and takes over. His plan isn’t to liberate a couple of televisions and cell phones, but to locate the millions of dollars worth of gold bullion that Hussein was alleged to have stolen with the idea of liberating it for himself. He works out a plan with the other three, engages another soldier (Jamie Kennedy) to get his press contact off his back, and the four proceed to head off in a Hum-Vee to see what they can see. And, not too long after they start looking, they find the gold. They also find quite a bit more. They find refugees, who will be killed by Hussein’s troops as soon as they leave. And so a deal is struck—the refugees help them carry the millions in heavy gold bullion, and they get the refugees to the Iranian border and safety.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple, especially in the demilitarized area of a warzone in a movie, and there are plenty of complications, live fire, deaths, and a little bit of torture. Despite all of this, the film is relatively straightforward from start to finish. The twists and turns here come not from double crosses, but from attacks of conscience and from people making the decision between doing what they want and ultimately doing what is right. All of our main characters make this choice at least once, deciding essentially what the lives of these Iraqi refugees is worth in a very literal sense.

I liked Three Kings, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies list. It’s a good film, and one that makes an interesting point about the war in which it takes place. It’s difficult these days to make a war film that doesn’t make some sort of political point, and Three Kings is no different in that respect. The troops, eventually, feel responsible for the suffering and the survival of the Iraqi people because the joint military forces stopped short of the removal of Hussein from power, leaving those people to his not-so-tender mercies in the aftermath. In other words, these troops defy orders to do precisely what the American military failed to do in the war. There’s no question that this was the intended message here.

Russell frequently plays with the way the film plays out, reducing one action sequence to slow motion and momentary still frames. It’s an interesting effect. Rather than showing a melee, he shows one man shooting, then the results of that shot, then the next and the next until the shooting stops. It’s a fascinating scene, but the use of this technique is too infrequent in the film to be more than a simple trick. At several times, he takes us inside the human body to show us what is happening, and here he depicts the human organs in a variety of bright colors that offer the suggestion of biology with all of the reality of an expensive plastic museum display. It’s odd and mildly off-putting, as if he wanted to be edgy without offering offense.

Three Kings isn’t a bad movie, but it’s also not really a great one.

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a film I knew nothing about going in, and that I selected only for the royal similarity in the name. As it turns out, though, there is a distinct similarity between these two films despite having nothing in common on the surface. This film is far more akin to a modern Argentinean version of The Sting than anything else, and had I known that, I might have saved it for a conman/crime spree double feature. However, I didn’t and went with a pairing based on titles alone. I just happened to get lucky in that both films involve a plot that is at least marginally about acquiring and moving merchandise of great value.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time conman scamming convenience stores for a few bucks at a time. He’s caught by who he thinks is a cop, but who actually turns out to be Marcos (Ricardo Darin), another conman who is more sophisticated and experienced. Marcos, used to working with a partner, decides to take Juan under his wing, and the two pull off a couple of scams around Buenos Aries. We discover that Juan needs the money to bribe a judge for his father, which is why he is scamming everyone and everything he can. And then a massive scam falls into their laps.

A former associate of Marcos, a man named Sandler (Oscar Nunez) has a scam set up that is perfect. A man named Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal) is being deported. As it happens, Gandolfo is fabulously wealthy and is an inveterate stamp collector. Sandler has access to a set of rare stamps from the Weimar Republic. These stamps, called the Nine Queens, are worth a fortune, and while he can’t actually get his hands on the real thing, he’s been able to create a near perfect forgery. With Gandolfo leaving the country the next day, he’s got to sell him the forgery now, but his health won’t let him. Enter Marcos and Juan to pull off the deal.

Of course, there are a lot of hurdles in the way here. The first and biggest is that Gandolfo is staying at the hotel where Marcos’s sister Valeria (Leticia Bredice) works. The two are at odds with each other because Marcos has cheated her and their younger brother out of their inheritance. The appraiser who verifies the Nine Queens wants his cut for passing off the forgery as the real thing. Gandolfo decides that he’d rather have sex with Valeria as part of the deal. And Marcos attempts to screw Juan on the deal at every opportunity, naturally enough.

This film is very much like The Sting, although its sense of humor comes from a very different place. This film is grittier and a lot more sardonic, mainly. It becomes difficult to take anything at face value, which naturally makes those things that happen at face value that much more effective.

This is a clever film, and a film that is carefully plotted to within an inch of its life. Throughout, we get only enough information to keep us invested in the plot. Everything makes sense during the entire running time, and each of the various plot twists continue to make sense all the way along. And yet despite this, the ending is impossible to guess. Every time something happens, there’s no way to know if it’s really happening or just another machination from Marcos or Juan.

Worth watching? Absolutely yes. The performances are well done all the way through, and the film is a real pleasure to watch. Director Fabian Bielinsky doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy here, but he’s also smart enough to stay out of the way of the film and the actors and let the plot play out. Nueve Reinas is all about the plot—the actors and characters are almost secondary, and only Marcos (and perhaps Valeria) are really memorable here. But that doesn’t matter at all because the plot is good enough that it’s all we really want anyway.

Why to watch Three Kings: A war story with actual heart.
Why not to watch: Day-Glo innards.

Why to watch Nueve Reinas: A con game of the highest quality.
Why not to watch: How enticing do you typically find stamp collecting?


  1. I like both films. They aren't awe-inspiring, but they are passable.

  2. With a film like Three Kings, I sometimes get the impression that they just needed to fill space. It's a little disappointing, because there are other, more worthy films.

  3. Replace Clooney, Wahlberg and Cube with Eastwood, Savalas and Sutherland and you have "Kelly's Heroes". I know I'm over-simplifying but that's how I felt through the entire movie.

  4. Steve, I saw Three Kings in the theater and liked it a lot, but I think part of it was that my expectations weren't that high. Clooney wasn't the superstar that he is now in terms of movies, and Wahlberg and Ice Cube were surprises too. I'd be interested to see how it holds up. I caught Nine Queens on DVD and also knew little about it, so it was a nice surprise. I've heard the U.S. remake with John C. Reilly is very similar, but I haven't checked it out yet.

  5. @Ken-yes, but it's a lot darker than Kelly's Heroes, and also not nearly as much fun.

    @Dan-Clooney was in process of superstardom. He was still on ER when he made Three Kings, and this film comes two years after he helped destroy the first Batman franchise. As for Nine Queens...there's a remake?

  6. I haven't seen Nine Queens, but I've seen Three Kings. I agree with you on it. I thought it was an okay film, but nothing to write home about. I remember the special effects of the bullets going through the body were much praised at the time. I agree with commenter Ken Loar: I saw this as a sort-of remake of Kelly's Heroes and that the first did it better.

  7. Perhaps if I'd seen the film when it was released, I'd have thought more of those special effects. Now, 13 years later, they're still effects, but not so special.

  8. I had technical difficulties with Breaking the Waves, so I looked at the free movies I've cached on YouTube and I decided to watch Nine Queens. I didn't know anything about it, and I was pleasantly surprised! (Although the ending is a bit far-fetched. Was half the population of Buenos Aires in on the con? But that's something you come to expect in a lot of movies about con artists, so it didn't ruin the movie.)

    I know I've seen at least one Argentinean movie (for a graduate course in Latin American history) but I can't remember enough about it to get anything when I search online for the name. It was a period piece (early 1800s?) and I seem to remember the main character was a woman resisting marriage.

    It looks like Nine Queens is a pretty good introduction to Argentinean cinema!

    1. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's very much a film that works because the story is well written. Far-fetched? Sure, a little, but as you say, con artist movies tend to be that way. It's part of the fun, right?