No guts, no glory

David O. Russell gets to the heart of the matter, down to the last detail

It begins with a simple request. "Do you want anything to drink?" asks the Warner Bros. publicist, a lanky young man outfitted in a pressed green shirt, a businessman's tie, and dark slacks. "Some water maybe?" The visiting journalist, ushered into the Crescent Court Hotel suite to interview Three Kings writer-director David O. Russell, asks whether there is any Dr Pepper.

"Dr Pepper?" asks Russell's friend, a New Yorker named Seth, who's in town marketing his soy sauce infused with chili peppers. "Man, we must be in the South."

Russell, sitting behind a room-service platter consisting of a sandwich and fries, wonders, "Do you like Dr Pepper?" He asks the question with deep sincerity, as though it actually means something.

David O. Russell and George Clooney, presumably when neither man wanted a piece of the other
Scott M. Nelson
David O. Russell and George Clooney, presumably when neither man wanted a piece of the other

"Sure," he is told, "especially the real stuff -- with cane sugar, not artificial sweetener." Russell puts down his fork. The man who made his debut with a small film about an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son, 1994's Spanking the Monkey, cocks his head slightly.

"Get the camera," Russell excitedly tells his friend, motioning toward a tiny digital video camera sitting on the glass-topped coffee table. At this moment, he resembles a better-looking version of Ben Stiller, who starred in Russell's 1996 film Flirting With Disaster. "Talk about the difference between real Dr Pepper and the fake stuff." He then goes to the phone and dials the concierge, requesting Dr Pepper from Dublin, Texas, where the real shit is manufactured in perfect, tiny bottles. A few minutes later, room service arrives with small bottles of plain old Dr Pepper.

"Here," Russell says, pouring a glass. "Drink this. I want to film your reaction when you taste it."

Nearly an hour later -- an hour spent watching videos and talking about soft drinks and barbecue -- Russell claps his hands together and smiles broadly. "So, that's the interview," he says, before it has even begun. He begins to stand. "Thanks for coming by. No, wait -- did you have any questions for me?"

You get the feeling this is how the 40-year-old Russell lives his regular life -- through the lens of a camera, documenting and preserving the mundane details and recording other people's stories. That is why the video camera never leaves his side. He is afraid he might miss something that he can use later or just play and replay again for his own entertainment. He would prefer to ask others personal questions than answer any lobbed at him. During interviews for Flirting With Disaster, which deals with a man trying to find his real parents, he would only hint that it was exaggerated autobiography without revealing anything too personal. Such, perhaps, is the life of the voyeur.

The man is obsessed with the little details, which is why he made a film about four soldiers stealing Saddam Hussein's stash of gold bullion and then dropped the heist into the background early on. The early trailers for Three Kings made the film look like a cross between Kelly's Heroes and The Magnificent Seven: soldiers out to steal a bounty of gold stop long enough to save innocent villagers.

But Three Kings -- which stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and music-video-turned-feature director Spike Jonze -- is a far bigger, and somehow smaller, film than its commercials suggest. The theft, which takes place early, is simply a prelude to a different, better story that deals with the consequences of war. In the end, Russell makes heroes out of four ordinary men who realize, once the Gulf War has ended, that victory means only leaving the Iraqis to be massacred by Hussein's Republican Guard. "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam," says Clooney's character, the wearied Maj. Archie Gates, a Special Forces veteran short-timing his way through the Gulf War. "Now, they're being slaughtered."

Russell spent 18 months fleshing out a story by John Ridley, researching the Gulf War like a student writing a thesis. His idea was to make a film that began the moment the American public and the media stopped paying attention -- during those moments when Iraq was ruled by cowboy soldiers cruising around in Humvees, looking for the action they never saw during the war. He imagined Three Kings as a spaghetti Western crossed with Robert Altman's M*A*S*H -- with violence as the punch line to a grim joke. You can feel the slugs as they puncture flesh; you can almost taste the lead and blood during one slow-motion, surreal shootout, during which bullets impact with a muted, fleshy thud. The last thing Russell wanted was to "Bruce Willis-ize" war.

"That's why, instead of having 500 bullets, like The Matrix or Saving Private Ryan, we just have 15 bullets," Russell says. "It's more of a Sergio Leone approach, where every bullet resonates in a bigger way."

The best moments of the film are so small, they barely exist; they whiz by like blinks of an eye. They're the sort of details often overlooked in action films, the moments that render celluloid characters flesh, blood, and broken bone. There's the occasion when Ice Cube, as Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin, sees Rodney King being beaten on an Iraqi soldier's television, and he stops just long enough to blink at the violence. It's easy to miss if you aren't watching closely -- the look of anger, disgust, and confusion that flashes across his stern face. The dude looks pissed, but he never says anything; he hasn't the time.

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