The movie stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as a "weird masterpiece, a screw-loose war picture that sends action and humor crashing head-on into each other and spinning off into political anger." The film gets its name from the character Conrad's outburst: "We three kings be stealin' the gold...", clearly a parody of the Christmas carol We Three Kings of Orient Are.
Meanwhile, Major Archie Gates (Clooney), a Special Forces soldier in the same camp, is having sex with a female journalist when he is interrupted by Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), a television reporter who has been assigned to Gates. Cruz tells Gates of the rumors of a secret map being discovered. Gates ditches Cruz and enters the tent of Barlow, Vig and Elgin, against the protestations of Specialist Wogeman. Gates convinces the three soldiers that the document is a map of Saddam's bunkers, containing gold bullion stolen from Kuwait. They decide to steal the gold themselves and set off in search of it in a Humvee vehicle.
Using the cease-fire orders from President Bush, the Americans are able to raid and secure the bunkers without any bloodshed. There, among other goods plundered from Kuwait, they find the gold. As they are leaving they see a female prisoner executed by the newly arrived Iraqi Republican Guard troops, and decide to abandon the plan to "grab the gold and go." They rescue a group of Iraqi prisoners including a local rebel leader and start a private mini-war against Saddam's loyalist soldiers.
After the firefight in the village and arrival of the Iraqi reinforcements, the Americans' vehicles are destroyed as they blunder into a minefield and the Iraqi soldiers capture Barlow. A group of rebels rescue the remaining Americans and take them to their underground hideout. There, Vig, Elgin and Gates agree to help the rebels and their families reach the Iranian border, but not before they rescue Barlow.
Meanwhile, Barlow has been taken to an underground bunker converted from an ancient ruin. Placed in a room full of Kuwaiti cell phones, he manages to call his wife and tells her to report his location to his commanding officer. His call is cut short when he is dragged out and transferred to an interrogation room. Electrical wires are placed around his ears, and Iraqi, Captain (Saïd Taghmaoui), berates him about the hypocrisy of American involvement in the region. Barlow is electric shocked several times, and finally forced to drink motor oil by the Iraqi officer, who had lost his family during the American bombing of Baghdad.
The group meet up with a band of Iraqi Army deserters who are willing to help them by selling them a fleet of luxury cars stolen from Kuwait. Among these vehicles was the Infiniti M30 Convertible, which was referenced throughout the movie by Elgin. With these cars they go to the bunker to save Barlow, and scare away most of its defenders by spreading the rumor that an enraged Saddam is coming to kill them. The Infiniti Convertible is blown up and after storming the bunker they free Barlow, who spares the life of his torturer, as well as more Shi'ites held in a dungeon. Leaving the complex, they are attacked by an armed helicopter, which Elgin destroys by throwing a Nerf ball rigged with explosives at it. During a shootout with a couple of returning Republican Guards, Barlow and Vig are shot. Conrad Vig dies, and Barlow, suffering from a punctured lung, has a device placed in his chest to allow air to escape.
Gates then makes radio contact with Specialist Wogeman at base asking for a transport, offering the drivers $100,000 each. He then orders that each of the Shi'ites be given a bar of gold and the rest buried. Planning to help the Shi'ites escape, they make their way to the Iranian border, heavily guarded by government forces. After finally reaching the border they are stopped by the American soldiers and arrested. Gates finally offers the rest of the gold to the other Americans in exchange for letting the refugees through.
The movie closes stating that all of the soldiers were cleared of their charges thanks to Adriana Cruz's reporting. Gates and Elgin now work as military advisers to action films, and Barlow is the owner of a carpet store. The closing epilogue states that the stolen gold was returned to Kuwait, although the Kuwaitis reported some were missing.
After one of the military advisors to the film died during production, Russell said the death was "perhaps due to chemicals he was exposed to in the Gulf."
Ridley maintains that Russell shut him out of the process, saying "I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn't even on it." Although Warner Brothers worked out a deal to give Ridley a "story by" credit, Ridley remains unhappy with the experience, and has blocked Russell's efforts to publish the Three Kings screenplay in book form.
The part of Archie Gates was originally planned for Clint Eastwood, but Russell decided to rewrite it as a younger character. George Clooney eventually saw a copy of the script and was "blown away" by it. When he heard the part was being re-written, he jumped at the chance to get involved. At this point in Clooney's career, he was best known for his role as the handsome Dr. Doug Ross on the popular television drama ER. Clooney was ready to pursue a role in film. Unfortunately, Russell seemed unwilling to cast Clooney in the role.
Persistent, Clooney sent a humorously self-deprecating letter signed "George Clooney, TV actor" to Russell asking for the part, and showed up at Russell's New York City apartment to plead his case. Russell still wasn't satisfied that Clooney could portray the character. He instead convinced Nicolas Cage to play the role. However, when Cage became unavailable after being cast in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, Russell gave the part to Clooney. Russell later stated that Clooney "was meant to play the part."
Many of the Iraqi roles were played by real Iraqi refugees in the United States. (Similar technique was used in The Killing Fields.)
Russell also credited the realism of the firefights to the film's cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, who had shot several documentaries on South American civil wars, saying "he knew what it was like to be in that kind of world."
All of the explosions in the movie were filmed in one shot, as opposed to a typical movie where each would have been covered by multiple cameras. Russell explained, "to me that's more real. The car's blowing up on this guy, and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says, 'we gotta run three cameras!' But if I cut three ways, then it just looks like an action picture." Russell also had the foley department tone down the sounds of gunfire, saying he didn't want to "Bruce Willis-ize" the film."
One frequently noted shot in the film is an image of a bullet piercing a number of internal organs, releasing bile into the abdominal cavity, used when Gates is describing sepsis as the effect of a gunshot wound. This internal camera is again used when SFC Barlow is shot in the torso and his chest begins to fill with air, crushing his lung. Both of these scenes were inspired by Russell asking an emergency room doctor friend "What's the weirdest wound you've ever seen?" It also erupted a minor controversy, when Russell began to joke around that the gunshots were fired into a real corpse; a statement everyone vehemently denied later.
As a result, Warner Brothers gave Russell a number of limitations. The shooting schedule was reduced to only 68 days instead of the 80 Russell had initially asked for. The studio wanted the budget to be lowered to $35 million. Executives were also constantly urging the removal of more violent scenes, such as the exploding cow and the shooting of an Iraqi woman. Russell was also forced to sign a legal document requiring that scenes containing pedophilia accusations against Michael Jackson be removed from the film. The pressure of delivering the film began to become evident in Russell.
The shoot took place in Arizona during October and proved to be grueling. The crew were unused to the improvisational, on-the-fly directing style that Russell implemented. Rather than preparing organized shot lists, Russell preferred to use ideas as they came to him, often demanding longer hours. Early on, much of the crew began to feel a dislike for these methods and Russell along with them. Clooney noted that "there's an element of David that was in way over his head... he was vulnerable and selfish, and it would manifest itself in a lot of yelling." When Russell's frustration would lead to outbursts, Clooney would take it upon himself to defend crew members and extras, leading to increased tensions.
When an extra had an epileptic seizure on set, Clooney ran to his aid while Russell apparently remained indifferent to the matter. Afterward, Clooney scolded Russell for ignoring the incident, though Russell later stated that he was busy setting up a shot some yards away from the extra and wasn't aware that the extra had suffered a seizure.
Another on-set conflict between the two arose while shooting footage on a Humvee with a camera mounted to it. Clooney recalls Russell yelling at the driver to drive faster. Clooney then approached the director, telling him to "knock it off". Russell remembers the incident differently: "The camera broke, we were losing the day and I was upset about that. So I jumped off the truck and I was like, 'Fuck!' I was just kicking the dirt and everything like that. And then George had this big thing about defending the driver, whom I hadn't really said anything to."
Also during the shoot, Clooney was understandably exhausted as he was still shooting ER in Los Angeles three days a week, working on Three Kings the other four. He had even more difficulty with the amount of improv the film required. Regardless, Clooney was determined to stay with the role. Loyal to the script, Clooney helped convince executives to support certain aspects of the film (such as the exploding cow scene) even after he was urged to drop out of production, as his contract called for his compensation with or without his decision to stay in the film.
After a number of arguments, Clooney wrote Russell a letter that harshly criticized Russell's behavior in a last attempt to make peace between the two, days before their biggest fight would break out during the filming of the movie's finale. In it, the three lead characters attempt to escort Iraqi rebels across the border to Iran. There were a number of actors and extras in the scene, as well as other crucial elements, such as helicopters flying overhead and landing in the center of the location.
The fight began after an extra was having difficulty throwing Ice Cube's character to the ground. After a number of takes, Russell came to the extra and put him through the motions of the action. Some individuals present on the set during the incident state that Russell was simply showing the extra how to convincingly act in the scene. However, Clooney and others thought that Russell had violently thrown the extra to the ground. Clooney recalls: "We were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra." Clooney approached a frustrated Russell and began scolding him again, coming to the extra's defense. The two began shouting at one another before entering a physical fight. Second assistant director Paul Bernard was so fed up with the experience when the fight broke out that he put down his camera and walked off the set, effectively quitting.
Clooney concludes, "Will I work with David ever again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he's tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah." Russell offered a different view, saying "we're both passionate guys who are the two biggest authorities on the set," and maintaining that the two continue to be friends. Ice Cube felt the conflict helped the movie, saying "it kind of kicked the set into a different gear where everybody was focused and we finished strong. I wouldn't mind if the director and the star got into an argument on all of my movies."
Though the fight was initially kept under wraps, both Russell and Clooney eventually gave official statements saying that the argument had blown over and neither harbored any ill will towards one another. However, Clooney continued to describe the event in later interviews, as well as the cover story of the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in which he states: "I would not stand for him humiliating and yelling and screaming at crew members, who weren't allowed to defend themselves. I don't believe in it and it makes me crazy. So my job was then to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating."
Executive producer and production manager Gregory Goodman later stated about Clooney's comments in the media, "It doesn't reflect well on [Clooney]. It's like some stupid sandbox quarrel."
On April 18, 2003, Staff Sergeant Matt Novak, a decorated 12-year Army veteran, discovered $200 million in American hundred dollar bills hidden in 50 metal boxes in a cement shed. Novak, accompanied by Spc. Jamal Mann and First Sgt. Eric Wilson, began to divide up the money, stuffing some in their pockets and hiding more in a nearby palm tree. The men also sunk some of the boxes in a nearby canal, planning to come back with scuba gear to recover it. When their commanding officer, Major Kent Rideout, appeared on the scene, he immediately discovered the money hidden in the tree, and began to investigate the case. After amnesty was offered, the men began talking and the money was recovered. Although Mann had mailed $10,000 to his wife in New Jersey, that money was eventually returned as well.
Novak, whom the army had determined was the ringleader, was dishonorably discharged. The others were punished more lightly: Wilson remained in the Army teaching ROTC, and Mann received an honorable discharge. Novak later claimed his friends had nicknamed him "Clooney".
In 2004 Warner Brothers, feeling the film had become relevant again due to the Iraq War, decided to re-release it in theaters and on DVD. Having no additional footage to add, Russell instead shot Soldiers Pay, a short documentary about the Iraq War, to accompany the film. Taking its name from William Faulkner's first novel of the same name about an airman's return home in the aftermath of World War I, Russell said the documentary examined "both sides of the war, people who feel good about the war, who believe in the mission, people who feel bad." While making the documentary Russell spoke with both Iraqis and U.S. troops, including SSG. Matt Novak, whom Russell tracked down with the help of his brother-in-law, a private investigator. Asked how the Iraqis he had interviewed felt about the war, Russell said Although Russell had planned to release the film before November 2004, hoping to "perhaps make a difference before the election," Warner Brothers abandoned the project at the last minute, citing "controversy surrounding the documentary, combined with a later-than-expected arrival of the bonus footage". Russell disputed the time-crunch excuse, saying "I think if they really wanted to they could make it happen." Eventually, the documentary was purchased by the Independent Film Channel, where it was aired in its entirety the night before the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election.