Top 100 Movies of the 1990's: #90 Three Kings

Warner Bros. Shutterstock Images.

Box Office: $60.7 million

Oscar Nominations: None

Oscar Wins: None

Available To Stream: Paramount+, Showtime 90/100

David O. Russell is such a great writer and director that this very good film is only my third favorite by him. With Three Kings, he has to do a lot more juggling and while it’s not as complete or as consistent as The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook, it still holds up very well.

Shot mostly in the deserts in Arizona and California, this sounded like a very difficult set to be on. According to George Clooney, Russell was very difficult to the extras and crew and was screaming at them. Clooney didn’t like Russell behaving like that and at one point, it got so heated that Clooney and Russell got into an actual fight. Clooney said he would never work with him again (he hasn’t) and he’s not alone. Both Lily Tomlin (during I Heart Huckabees) and Amy Adams (when she was shooting American Hustle) also thought he was awful to work with and haven’t worked with him since.

This was a career crossroads for Clooney. He was still doing ER but knew he’d be leaving that show soon. But during this shoot, he was shooting ER three days a week and doing Three Kings the other four days. He says he was exhausted during this stretch and he needed this movie to be a success. He had already had mild successes with The Peacemaker and Out Of Sight but was still wearing the stain of Batman & Robin. Three Kings wouldn’t be a major hit but it was very well-received and did well enough in the box office. His next major movie was The Perfect Storm (also with Mark Wahlberg) which wound up bringing in $62 million in it’s opening weekend alone.

Three Kings didn’t open nearly that strong bringing in $15 million that first weekend and finishing in second place behind Double Jeopardy. But between glowing reviews (Roger Ebert gave it four stars) and the fact that the movie was profitable, it did put Russell on the map. This was his first studio film with a decent budget and you can see his creativeness on the screen. Showing what happens internally to someone who gets shot is powerful and inventive.

The things I love most about this movie falls away before it’s over. I like that these are greedy guys who want gold and the moral implications of this heist are tough to manage. Seeing Clooney, Wahlberg and Ice Cube struggling with that makes the second act really stand out. This is a case where the middle is the best part. I’m much less interested when they become full-fledged heroes at the end and it becomes more of a humanitarian mission. I also don’t know if these guys would all disregard the gold that quickly.

Russell does a great job with supporting actors and this movie is no different. Wahlberg, Cliff Curtis and Ice Cube are very good but Spike Jonze really stands out as the hillbilly soldier Conrad. It's even more impressive that it's his first major acting role. Nora Dunn who was decent on SNL is never better than she is in this. That's the thing with David O. Russell. His sets sound like absolute nightmares but he always gets great performances out of the people who do work with him. 

It's an interesting time capsule of sorts seeing how some perceived the Middle East and the first Gulf War right before 9/11. This movie takes the viewpoint that American involvement was necessary but should have been handled better by the government. I wouldn't call this movie simplistic at all but those viewpoints are certainly much more complicated in 2022 than they were then. 

Russell has a new movie coming out on October 7th called Amsterdam. It's the first movie he's directed or written in seven years. It has him working again with Christian Bale and Robert DeNiro and also stars Morgot Robbie. I think it looks great.

Maybe this will be the movie that finally wins an Oscar for Russell. He's been nominated for five Academy Awards (including three times for Best Director for The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) and never won. The only other time we waited six years or more for a Russell film, we got The Fighter.


While I'd stop short of calling Three Kings a great movie, it's very good and also a huge turning point for a number of people involved. It was successful enough to give studios faith that David O. Russell could be trusted to make a modest hit. This helped solidify Wahlberg as a legitimate actor, as it was the first critically acclaimed movie he had done since Boogie Nights. 

Finally, this is the moment right before Clooney was in blockbusters The Perfect Storm and Ocean's 11. It's also first movie released since he left ER. I miss this George Clooney. He's only been in two movies since 2016. He directed himself playing a scientist alone at the Arctic Circle in The Midnight Sky. It's as boring as it sounds. He also has a movie coming out next month. It looks like an incredibly basic rom-com with Julia Roberts called Ticket To Paradise.

Clooney may have already won an Oscar and has had the more memorable and successful career. He also sounds like a much better human being than David O. Russell. But at least Russell is still making films that look interesting. 

90. Three Kings

91. Glengarry Glen Ross

92. Die Hard With A Vengeance

93. The Blair Witch Project

94. Twister

95. Dirty Work

96. Election

97. Tremors

98. Any Given Sunday

99. The Wedding Singer

100. Clerks