Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Rising and Advancing of the Spirit

I don't generally enjoy Kung Fu movies. Allow me to generalise for a moment, with the understanding that I know that there are films in the genre of terrific wit, profundity and beauty. Those films are rare, and distinctive because of their scarcity. But the remainder of the genre - and there is a lot of it - is mainly dross. Obviously I'm a boy with as much of a liking for physical action as the next boy, and so I like a well-shot, well-choreographed martial arts fight scene in a movie. But I don't necessarily want that fight scene to be the soul of the movie, then get repeated with the slightest of variations for an hour and a half, linked by some desultory plotting and lazily-scripted "character" scenes. I don't see why such films are to be celebrated.

One of the first films my family rented on VHS was "Enter the Dragon". I was maybe 6 or 7, and we were too poor to own a video recorder. But one of my Dad's workmates went abroad on holiday, leaving his VCR with us so it wouldn't be burgled. It was summer. We had four days of visits to the local Video Library with two films borrowed on every visit. "Who Dares Wins", "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Way of the Dragon" were all later choices. But "Enter the Dragon" made the greatest impression on me, possibly because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Bruce Lee seemed liked a being from another universe, more cat than man, but even then, inescapably cool. The fight scenes blew my mind. To a little boy, that one man versus an army mode of action cinema is perfect - simple, exciting, fantastic. Especially when the one man is Bruce Lee, and hes got some nunchacks.

Nowadays you can wander into a High Street DVD store and find a selection of Martial Arts films. Bruce Lee, obviously, but also Jet Li, Jackie Chan, a dozen lesser martial artists, hundreds of titles. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. Video stores stocked "Enter the Dragon" if you were lucky. If not you were left with Chuck Norris. Then the Stallone-Schwarzenegger acolytes emerged on VHS in the late 80s - Van Damme, Seagal, Lundgren, Dudikoff. They all did Martial arts. Their films were studded with scenes of them kicking bad guys who modeled mullets. But the real thing? Shaw Brothers films? "A Touch of Zen"? No. Not in Dublin at that time. So I grew up without that connection with the genre, cinematically speaking at least.

My Kung Fu movies weren't movies at all. They were comics. "Master of Kung Fu" was a title published by Marvel Comics from 1973 until 1983. Originally titled "Special Marvel Edition" it was renamed with issue No. 17 in honour of a character who had made his debut only two issues earlier: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Of course, I was only eight years old when the final issue was published, so I came to it retrospectively. In June 1987, "Action Force", a Marvel UK weekly made up of a mix of new British and reprinted American (G.I Joe) material, began featuring Master of Kung Fu strips as a back-up story, starting with "The Crystal Connection" from Master of Kung Fu No. 29. I didn't know it at the time, but "The Crystal Connection" is perhaps the most classic MOKF (as it shall henceforth be known in this post) story of all. It introduced the creative team that was to redefine the title - writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy.

I've praised Moench on this blog before for his fine work on "Moon Knight", but MOKF is the best thing he ever did, a unique and brilliant mainstream comic unlike anything produced before or since. Gulacy broke through with his work on the title, and he went on to work in commercial art, before returning to comics, his reputation even higher than when he left the field. He never really equalled that early work, for me. Back then his Steranko-influenced work jumped off the page, bristling with invention and story-telling brio. Sometimes his grasp of perspective might slip, but his layouts were experimental, his pacing was fantastically cinematic, the detail beautiful, his blacks incredibly heavy, and the whole thing had an energy only present when an artist is excited by what he is doing. Nowadays, while still capable, his work seems a little mannered and repetitive.

Shang Chi had been created by Steve Engelhart and Jim Starlin as a means to capitalize on the success of the "Kung Fu" tv show. Marvel yolked together their idea with a literary property they had just purchased - the creations of one Sax Rohmer, including most specifically Fu Manchu. Shang Chi became his son, allowing for plotlines incorporating modern espionage, victorian characters and kung fu. A strange mix, and one that nobody could make work until Moench got into his stride on his second year on the title. Moench perfected the portrayal of Shang Chi himself, and it was this that made the often silly plots work. Shang Chi was an innocent in the Western world, struggling to deal with morality, political necessity, his sexuality and his search for meaning. His work for Sir Nayland Smith's MI6 led him into a string of violent situations wherein he would bust some awesome Kung Fu moves while monologuing internally about the spirituality of his "art" or about his feelings for violence or Leiko, a foxy Chinese spy also in Smith's employ.

It also allowed Moench to avoid third person captions by having Shang Chi explain what was going on in a characteristically wordy and pseudo-poetic manner. No fight scene was complete without Shang Chi's description of the action, generally something like: "He stretches -- too far, and in doing so leaves himself open. I strike. But he is strong, perhaps stronger than I." This would be over two panels of Shang Chi and a villain kicking and parrying. Here is his narration - spread through a single four-panel page - of his and Leiko's arrival in a Warehouse having pursued a monstrous gorilla (don't ask) from the sewers beneath New York, from issue 92, September 1980:
"It is a vast place of rushing drafts, all masked in gloom, the gutted skeleton of a building long abandoned to death and decay. Pillars and beams and struts section the immense space, but only serve to make it seem larger, suspended as they are in an upward abyss. A rickety stairway is central to the structured chaos of design. Only the chain and pulley are new...I prepare myself-- as the premonition grows stronger again stirring my flesh. It happens near the top. a dark shape rips itself from the deeper darkness -- but halts , as if merely guarding the entrance."
No other comic was ever written quite like that, but every issue of MOKF was, and it is an addictive style. Especially when combined with pages of hardcore martial arts action - which every issue has - and copious romantic soap plotlines, not to mention a great range of villains, Fu Manchu and international espionage.

After that first brush with MOKF in Action Force, it wasn't long before I scored a deeper, more satisfying hit. I came across a bunch of issues - 13 in all, all between 100 and 118 - at a Jumble Sale (in Ireland we call them a "Sale of Work") in a local school. Probably paid less than a pound for the lot. Somebody's Mum threw them out, I could feel it, and feel nothing but gratitude to that mystery woman. They were fantastic issues. With art mainly by Gene Day, they have a darker, more elegiac feel than the earlier years of the series, and the quasi-adult sensibility thrilled me. Since then I've bought back issues wherever I've seen them and never really been disappointed. The series will possibly never be reprinted, since Marvel no longer owns any rights to Fu Manchu, and paying the Rohmer estate reprint royalties would be financially imprudent. If it was available in a black and White "Essential" volume, perhaps it would enjoy a better reputation than it otherwise does, because it had such a lot going for it.

Consider the artists - Gulacy was ultimately followed by Mike Zeck, then a young turk bursting with ambition and possessing a clean and energetic style, which would make him one of Marvel's hottest artists in that decade (he was penciller on "Secret Wars"). Less atmospheric or cinematic than Gulacy, his action scenes were always thrilling and seemed intimately choreographed in a manner reminiscent of Frank Miller. Gene Day, who succeeded Zeck, was entirely different again, his work a baroque, hyper-detailed set of near-perfect but often experimental layouts. His unconventional style was just as tonally unique as Gulacy's and perfectly matched to Moench's world and Shang's character, his range of character expression growing with every issue. But those layouts were his strongest point - that and some oddly beautiful, strangely arty panel composition. It was not uncommon for Day to position two characters engaged in conversation minutely in the background of a panel while filling the foreground with the incredible detail of an ornate mausoleum. But he could also pull off the action scenes - he split the page into small panels so that the action really flows, almost like a flick book. His stuff was almost as heavily black as Gulacy's, but his line was thicker and more solid, making some of it look almost like it was from a woodprint. He died a few months after the series ended from heart problems, his body of work far from finished and not especially enormous, which is why he is not regarded as a legend.

Consider also the characters. Shang Chi is the greatest martial artist in the Marvel Universe. Better than Iron Fist, Elektra, Batroc, Daredevil or any of the hand. When Scott Lobdell used him in an issue of X-Men years later, he held his own against Wolverine. He does all this almost effortlessly, with style and grace. And he dresses in red pyjamas with a headband. He is almost passive in terms of personality; a natural observer, always analyzing, always pondering meanings. He is obsessed with his own complicity in what he calls the "Games of death and deceit" between Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu. This gives him an oddly vulnerable air. Yet he is also something of a rake, unabashed about enjoying an affair with the woman of an arch-enemy when Leiko is off undercover (with that enemy). He seems to toy with Leiko's affections too, and this after stealing her from Clive Reston, superspy, Shang's friend and Sean Connery lookalike. Gulacy made a habit of designing characters to look like movie icons, and so his issues also feature characters "cast" as Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, David Carradine, Bruce Lee and David Niven. Moench had some fun with this - Reston often refers obliquely to his father, the even more famous British superspy (obviously James Bond) and his Grandfather, the famous Detective (Sherlock Holmes). Reston is a great character - insecure and alcoholic yet cocky and deadly, his worldliness a good contrast to Shang's naivete. They are joined by Black Jack Tarr, an old school Brit who always refers to Shang as "Chinaman" and yet becomes his closest friend.

Fu Manchu - the prototypical Criminal mastermind, the ultimate Bond villain, and a vilely racist creation all at once - aside, MOKF also featured some cool but cheesy villains. Like Carlton Velcro, another Bond Villain, combining the jobs of druglord and would-be World Conquerer, and the villain of "The Crystal Connection". Like Razorfist, whose hands have been replaced with long blades by Velcro. Like the Ghost Maker, a sort of super-ninja. Like Mordillo, robot-creating mad scientist-assassin. Like Brynocki, Mordillo's deadliest and most vengeful creation, but also a midget. Like War-Yore, a rogue British assassin with a penchant for dressing like a soldier from a different historical era on each appearance. Like Shaka Kharn, Shang's own ancestor, resurrected by is father to replace him. Like Pavane, whip-wielding lady-assassin, clad in black leather and surrounded by panthers. Perhaps his best villain is Shen Kuei, "The Cat", Shang's mirror-image and near-equal in combat, a former communist Chinese spy and lover of Leiko. He and Shang fight several times over the series, with a true victor never really established, and their respectful rivalry is a complex and well drawn relationship rare in the Marvel universe.

But then there was much about MOKF that was rare in the Marvel Universe. Indeed, putting aside how outlandish some of those villains sound, the series did feel closer in spirit to the work of Ian Fleming - or Sax Rohmer - than to Spider-Man or the Avengers. Which is perhaps its greatest strength. Moench's work was not bound by the same constraints of genre suffered by writers on the more indisputably Superhero titles and so he could take risks, push his work and characters in different directions. MOKF went off on little tangents. Shang Chi would go on breaks to meditate, to find himself again, to escape his complicated relationship with Leiko, and he would encounter comedic figures and profound stories in his travels. Moench gave these stories as much weight as the stories where he fought his father's Si-Fan ninjas on a space Station, and they are generally the book's best issues. Which I mean as incredibly high praise. For MOKF had a stupendously consistent decade of high quality stories, and almost all of it is worth reading now. Moench and Gulacy reunited in 2002 on a mini-series, but the magic was gone, and Shang Chi remains a more generic Marvel hero, appearing here and there as a guest star, never suggesting just how good his own comic was twenty years ago...


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 15

Georges Franju's beautifully eerie and poetic 1960 French horror, "Eyes Without a Face", was obviously too subtle and disturbing for the Hollywood studio who had attained the US rights. So they dubbed and retitled it. "The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus". Perfect. Even more perfect - pairing it up with the brilliantly titled "The Manster" for advertisement purposes. It reminds me of "Mant" from Joe Dante's "Matinee". Only this guy seems to have two heads at the end.
Like I said, perfect:


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tackling the Twelve: Let It Be

Some of my list of Twelve Holy Grail movies will inevitably come my way. For I have said so. Especially with my disc-dealing friend Ian on the case. First up: "Let It Be".

Here's the thing about the "Swinging" 60s. It didn't seem to swing. It was a swing-free zone. The swingless 60s. I mean, Pop Culture generally strengthens stereotypes, feeds the maw of the lowest common denominator. The easiest impression is favoured by mass media, and once its established, it can be impossible to change. In the case of the 1960s it has been crystallised - it is the era of Woodstock, free love, rock music, long hair, psychedelia, protests. All the cliches, man. Austin Powers is based upon them. Forrest Gump frolics through them.

London is an important City in the 60s myth. The capital of the Swinging World. Much of the most important music of the era came from the City and Carnaby Street was a style and fashion spot of worldwide interest. In "Blow Up" (1966) , Michaelangelo Antonioni exposed the city as still the same old grim, grey Imperial Capital of years past. In Antonioni's world, the 60s are happening, alright, but London barely notices. The Beatles relocated to London as soon as business demanded they live there rather than Liverpool. Their presence was a part of what made the city so fashionable - the fact that they went to gigs and parties and opened boutiques, the fact that you might see Paul McCartney on the bus between his house and Abbey Road studios. But "Let It Be" , Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 documentary, echoes "Blow Up" in that it, too, is located in a City far removed from the Swinging London of legend. The Beatles, four bearded, wounded individuals, live in a Post War City, surrounded by men in overcoats and hats, men smoking pipes, men carrying umbrellas. "Let It Be" makes the reality of London at that time its main focus for the last 20 minutes or so, when the band take to the roof of the Apple Corps Offices and play a few songs. Lindsay-Hogg's camera traces the reactions of the passers-by, looking at the sky, forming little groups upon pavements. Some ignore it all, and just keep walking. Some get excited, some climb onto nearby roofs for a better view. Eventually the police are called - the best symbol of the 60s establishment imaginable, their eyes mostly hidden beneath their helmets - and their humourless presence brings the film to a close, but it has already been established that the Beatles are not like the other Londoners in the film. They were some of the most famous and photographed individuals on earth at the time, and they have an aura of ridiculous fame about them. While the crowd on the street is mostly short-haired, sensible, with an abundance of overcoats, the Beatles wear fur coats, long hair, beards. George Harrison is wearing what look like green trousers and converse sneakers. They look like they belong in Laurel Canyon, not Marylebone.

It isn't really a good film, "Let It Be". The Beatles are only interesting because they're the Beatles. Otherwise there's little reason to watch it. It is interestingly minimalist - footage of the band in studio, messing about, chatting, tuning up, then playing live on the roof. That rooftop finale is a brief euphoric burst after the claustrophobia of the first hour, where we see the band struggling through rehearsals and recording. None of it is contextualised or explained - it just drifts by in some badly-edited chunks. McCartney at one end of a film set (for much of it was shot at Twickenham Studios) cut with Lennon and Yoko, as if they're in the same room at the same time. Badly cut, though, the edit always obvious. Then there is song after song of turgid retro material, the band lumbering through it all, groping for the best ways to play these songs. All of this complicated by the fact that their personal relationships were crumbling. Their conversations are snapshots of the tensions between them, and as such more inherently dramatic than the music ever is. Paul McCartney and Harrison share a famously bitter exchange: McCartney trying to explain how he wants a part played - "I'm trying to help you" - to which Harrison responds "I’ll play whatever you want me to play or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you - I'll do it." The references they make to earlier arguments suggest a group in deep trouble.

Later we see McCartney desperately trying to sell the idea of the Beatles as a band to a silent Lennon. It is difficult not to feel sorry for McCartney. He loves being a Beatle, you can see that. He is frantically trying to keep the band together, cajoling, lecturing, trying to gee them up, giving the songs his all. But he is just not the type to lead these men. They are old friends and the dynamic is too delicate for him to drive them forward. His personality means he is hard to like, too, so eager, so cocky, so unassuming that you suspect him of a hidden agenda at every turn. His ego is exposed at a couple of points - the three songs in a row he sings self-importantly straight to camera feel wrong, too posed and controlled for the otherwise casual feel of the film.

The others almost seem to be there only in body. McCarteny is to the forefront, the engine of the project, but the others hold back, with even Lennon's personality seeming muted. He was so in love with Yoko Ono at the time that he seems unable to take anything else seriously, gurning through songs, hitting bum notes, making up lyrics. This brings out the likeable side of McCartney on a few occasions - he too indulges in funny voices, improvised lyrics, when prodded by Lennon. The way they share excited glances on the rooftop is perhaps the most human moment in the film - here is the poignancy of an old friendship ebbing away, yet still all that history plays between them when they revisit it together. Yoko hangs at Lennon's shoulder at all times like the angel of death, silent, straight-faced. Ringo seems bored, vaguely baffled. Harrison seems nonchalant even through his argument with McCartney. He didn't need the band anymore by then. He sweetly helps Ringo with his song, and gamely plays his part on the others, but you can almost see him pulling away.

For a Beatles fan, its interesting, of course. To see them talking about the Maharashi, to see them mess up over and over, to glimpse the downtime in the studio, the clusters of their entourage, the voices off-camera. The music is so-so until the rooftop scenes, which is where most of the album versions come from. Then they are briefly, thrillingly restored, a rock and roll band again, raw and inventive, cooking, an audience seeing them live for the very last time. In the MTV era it all seems amazingly naive and simple, captured with two camera and rudimentary cutting. But it is the Beatles, after all.

So, twelve becomes eleven. Thanks, Ian!

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Ecstasy of Nike

Directed by David Fincher, photographed by the Emmanuel Luzbeki, with a soundtrack from "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" by Morricone. Nike give great advert. This one is called "Fate" apparently :

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

"I'll be wearing fashionable kevlar"

Over the last few years, every single American film dealing with the War in Iraq has been a commercial failure. Its a surprisingly lengthy list: "Stop Loss", "Lions for Lambs", "In the Valley of Elah", "Home of the Brave" and "Redacted". There are films on that list directed by Brian DePalma and Robert Redford, and starring Tom Cruise, Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. There is a murder mystery, a combat diary, and stories of troops returning home, damaged. None of that matters. All these films died slowly. Nobody wanted to see them. Iraq, you see, is box office poison.

Nobody really made Vietnam movies during the course of that War, except John Wayne, and the reception the ridiculous "The Green Berets" received probably warned off studios and filmmakers for the next decade. By the time Hollywood began making Vietnam War films, America was ready for them, ready for some reflection, some cinematic catarthis. Cimino, Copolla, Stone and Kubrick, among others, promptly made a handful of classics. By the time they did so, the consensus about the Vietnam experience was fairly well-established - it was a bad thing. America had lost, a generation had been brutalized, Vietnam itself destroyed, thousands had died, and there had been some outrageous human rights abuses committed. Filmmakers knew it was safe to approach the conflict from a critical viewpoint. Some - Stone, most obviously - were sympathetic to the grunts on the ground while still criticizing the leadership which had led the country into the War in the first place.

There is no clear consensus about Iraq in America as yet, which is a problem any filmmaker wishing to tackle the War must deal with. Most take the fairly Liberal position of criticizing the War, its rationale and conditions, while refraining from also criticizing the troops. Though their portrayal has already been notably darker and more ambiguous than in most of the films about Vietnam - "In the Valley of Elah" and "Redacted", particularly, are frank in their portrayals of what this war has driven men to. Most - including the television movies "The Mark of Cain" and "Battle for Haditha" and the series "Over There" - show the soldiers as terrified young men, just trying to do their jobs and survive*. But some of the excesses demanded by the unique conditions of the War seem unavoidably brutish and if they are depicted - which they must be, for the sake of honesty - then that depiction seems to carry an ingrained slight of the men involved. So these films cannot hope to have mass appeal. They attract only left-leaning audiences, keen to have their certainties reinforced. Nobody wins.

Two films from the years just prior to the inception of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provided contrasting approaches to similar subject matter. In effect they show the ways a modern War story can be successfully told. Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (2001) is a meticulous, visually stunning account of the military misadventure the US Army underwent in Mogadishu in 1992, an amazing simulation of modern urban combat. Technically masterful and viscerally bruising, it has proven incredibly influential in its visual approach, and indeed in its refusal to politicise its heroes, the fighting men themselves. They are heroic because of their courage, Scott's film says. Politics are irrelevant. Eric Bana's Delta Force super-warrior, Hoot, says it in a couple of lines: "They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is. " and "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window."

By comparison, David O. Russell's "Three Kings" (1999) is an unashamedly political film. Russell benefitted from several years of hindsight in his treatment of a War the US had won. He could more or less say what he liked about it. And so his film is highly critical of that Bush Government's treatment of Iraqi rebels who rose up against Saddam when it became apparent that he was losing the War. But Russell was savvy in his criticism - he veiled it in a terrific action comedy which felt, at the time, unlike any film I had ever seen before. Indeed, watching "Three Kings" now it looks like a masterpiece of sorts. It has aged extremely well.

In recent years, American cinema has profited handsomely from the collision of Indie creativity with Studio money. Russell is a great example of this faustian phenomenon. His debut, "Spanking the Monkey" (1994) is a sweatily well-observed, pitch black incest comedy, made for not a lot of money. He followed it with the broader "Flirting With Disaster" (1996) for Miramax, but despite the presence of bigger not-quite stars (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni) his work managed to retain some of its independent edge. Its there in the off-centre characterisation, the portrayal of America as a zoo for neurotics of various shades. "Three Kings" was something else entirely. A mega-budget semi-Blockbuster with some rising stars and the backing of one of the big studios in Warner Bros, it asked a lot of a young director. The pressure evidently got to Russell (as it would again on his next film, "I Heart Huckabees") - a difficult Arizona shoot saw him come to blows with star George Clooney, who swore never to work with him again. But it was worthwhile. His film manages to feel like a big action movie with an indie sensibility, a fairly unique beast.

Early on, everything is comic. That first shot of featureless desert horizon punctured by the incongruously surreal vision of a young Iraqi waving a white cloth from atop a small bunker/hill, the helmet of a US soldier in the bottom corner of the frame; sets the tone as just slighty askew. This is not how big studio War movies start. That this movie will be different is only underlined by its first dialogue, beginning an instant later, and shouted across the desert floor:
Troy: Are we shooting?
Soldier: What?
Troy: Are we shooting people or what?
Soldier: Are we shooting?
Troy: That's what I'm asking you!
Soldier: What's the answer?
Troy: I don't know the answer! That's what I'm trying to find out!

Russell treats the soldiers with a cynical detachment - he likes his heroes, you feel, but he is aware that they are all flawed individuals. His montage of their victory celebration paints them as jingoistic, meathead fratboys, a depiction much of the remainder of the film works hard to balance. Even so, there is something of the Coens in his sensibility, the notion that he feels somewhat superior to his characters and periodically cannot resist patronising them, even sneering at their idiocies. The conversation about "perfectly good substitutes" for racial terms of abuse for Iraqis is a good example. Russell was clever enough to cast likeable actors, however, and his film is structured cunningly so that the action and drama kicks in suddenly, and the audience is dragged along with the narrative's momentum, the heroes abruptly established as such.
The comedy, while it lasts, is a mixture of effects. Russell uses whatever may produce a laugh: slapstick, satire, sight gags and funny dialogue all feature. This is a film which depicts an exploding cow, while also featuring a character mistake bullion for "them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup" and employing a sudden, and frankly, quite brilliant cut to Chicago's "If You Leave Me now" in the tense preamble to an action sequence. Russell makes it all work, and it makes the film feel richer, more electric.

If "Three Kings" has a direct ancestor, it is "Kelly's Heroes", Brian G. Hutton's 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle about a heist by a platoon of GIs in Nazi-controlled Italy. That too was an action-comedy, though it entirely lacked any political dimension and it's action was far tamer than Russell's. He had never directed action before, and as a result those sequences are often sloppy and obviously the work of a director new to this type of material. And yet this inexperience is a boon - the action scenes are entirely lacking in the baggage of a seasoned pro, they seem almost to come without influences. As a result they feel fresh, with more impact and resonance than most action scenes. Russell signals his intentions with the early scene in which Clooney explains how a bullet can cause sepsis and the camera zips into and out of a body like an invisible scalpel, capturing the spurt of bile from a ruptured organ from the inside. Russell takes this violence seriously, it seems, he feels every bullet, and he seems determined to ensure that audiences do too. This pays off later when we see the anatomy of the escalation of the initial gunfight, the camera woozily cutting and panning across the spaces between combatants as a domino effect of thunderous shots and visceral impacts pulses through a town square, leaving men dead. Later on, characters we care about will be shot, even die, and Russell wants us to feel that too, to see the lunacy of it all.

Stylistically, the film is mainly handheld, giving it a jittery immediacy. The colours are washed out, bleached by the desert sun, most obviously in the earlier scenes. This over-exposed look has been much imitated since. Russell also indulges in some strange, almost disturbing frame compositions, and makes a few references to other movies - that first action scene is notable for its self-consciously posed close-ups of Clooney and Ice Cube, filtered light discolouring them, clouds streaming by unnaturally fast overhead. These shots seem like ultra-pop homages to Sergio Leone (which makes sense, given the duel that has just occurred) , and stand out because they are so different to the way the rest of the film is shot. Is Russell underlining that this is the moment priorities changed for these men, or ironically mocking their own possible self-images as bad-ass American fighting men? The way Russell portrays Clooney's character as a cool customer throughout, the latter suggestion seems unlikely. He gives the men credit for following their consciences, the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi villagers snapping them out of their greed and forcing them to intervene. Here he sets the standard so many later Iraq films cling to - he lauds the men on the ground while attacking the politicians.

But this is not a simple issue and Russell does not avoid its complexity, either. He makes it clear that these men are conflicted about helping the rebels in the longer term, beyond the initial situation in the town square. Indeed, they are more or less blackmailed into lending aid after their own lives have been saved. Wahlberg's character emerges from a torture-and-lecture session with more empathy for everybody - he is in severe shock - and falls in line with the others, who have all seen the light during their journey. At the end, the Rebels and their safe passage seems more important to the men than the gold. Of course Russell undercuts this with the final hint that even then, some of the gold was looted.

Much of the political context is made explicit in the dialogue. The film has an entire subplot about one Reporter searching for a story amidst a sea of reporters earching for stories, and indeed begins and ends with TV news report footage. As if that was too subtle, a character says "This is a media War" at one point. Clooney refers to "Bush" with a near-visible sneer, and uses him as a figurehead, with great irony, in his speech to rouse rebellion : "God bless America and God bless a free Iraq!" The speech fails, a possible allusion to the co-opting of American patriotism together with Iraqi nationalism. Clooney's superior, played by a brusque Mykelti Williamson, asks him a prescient question when he wonders what the purpose of the War was, if not to dethrone Saddam: "What do you wanna do, occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again?" But the most chilling scenes of political comment are the torture sequences wherein Said Taghmaoui's Captain tortures Wahlberg's frightened grunt for no particular reason. He just seems to want to teach him a lesson. And he does, pouring oil down his throat to ensure he understands the real motivation for the War. Wahlberg's dazed replies to his enquiries: "to maintain the stability of the region" etc, his lack of understanding of why he is there; are perhaps Russell's most pointed comment on his countries role in that conflict.

One of "Three Kings" other great strengths is obvious in that scene - this is unequivocally a film about the modern world, about how we live now, how things are and will be. American cultural imperialism is a given, so alongside torturing Wahlberg, Taghmaoui wants to discuss Michael Jackson with him, all the while awkwardly - and hilariously - using American slang terms to address him : Bro, Mymainman. His men watch MTV on stolen Kuwaiti televisions and risk their lives for Levis. Everybody has an intimate knowledge of Lexus models and Easy Listening tapes hide in Arab cars. Then there is the casual and brilliant realism of many of the references in Russell's dialogue - his soldiers discuss American Football, cars, religion, are at first awed by the violence they encounter. Ice Cube is a devout Christian, Spike Jonze an ignorant hick ("from a group home"). When Wahlberg rings his wife she asks him if she should apply for a job for him. The leader of the Iraqi rebels was educated in the US. Clooney ends up as a consultant on Hollywood action movies. This density of detail gives the movie texture, allows its narrative to breathe because the characters feel real and lived-in. Again, this makes their eventual loss and peril more affecting, meaning that the climax has a real power to it. Even better, Russell ends with a euphoric little coda.

"Three Kings" was a minor hit, earning $60 Million at the US Box Office with a budget of $48 Million. It won the Boston Society of FIlm Critics award for Best Film in 1999, a great year for American cinema (also released that year: "The Insider", "Being John Malkovich", "Boys Dont Cry", "The Sixth Sense", "The Straight Story", "Fight Club", "Magnolia", "American Beauty", "The Matrix" and "The Talented Mr Ripley). It boosted Clooney's career and, on the back of "Out of Sight" made him something of a hipster's choice as Leading Man, leading the Coen Brothers to come calling. Russell himself went on to the equally unique, massively self-indulgent "I Heart Huckabees" and is currently shooting his next film with Vince Vaughn. The direct influence of "Three Kings" is only obvious in Sam Mendes' "Jarhead" (2005) and perhaps in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" (2008), perhaps to be expected with such a deliberate, original film.

But a new Iraq War movie is soon to test the theory that movies about that subject cannot succeed commercially, with hopes of aping the relative success of Russell's film. Katherine Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" follows a bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad as they deal with their new, adrenaline junkie commanding Officer. It is by all accounts a great return to form for Bigelow after "K-19: The Widowmaker" and an utterly satisfying action movie as well as a vivid portrayal of Baghdad now. Whether or not American audiences can accept it is another thing entirely.

*I would expect David Simon and Ed Burns' HBO adaptation of the fabulous "Generation Kill" by Evan Wright to treat the subject with more ambiguity and complexity, but I haven't seen it yet.