Writer-director David O. Russell's Three Kings is a startling change, both in subject and scale, from his first two features, the quirky, low-budget dysfunctional-family comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. With his third effort, Russell not only tackles the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but does so in the form of a comic heist movie. The movie marks quite a step up for the former indie director: It's very stylish, often surreally funny, and actually contains sound criticisms of American foreign policy, though it still can't avoid sending mixed political messages.

From its opening moments, Three Kings conveys the absurdities of a war fought at a remove, with murky justfications. 'Are we shooting people or what?' Army Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) yells as he spies a lone Iraqi soldier with a gun atop a small hill, while one of his squadron whines about a grain of sand in his eye. Barlow fires and hits his target in the head-his first confrontation in a war that's just ended. Rounding up prisoners, Barlow and fellow G.I.s Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) discover a map that appears to pinpoint the whereabouts of caches of gold bullion stolen from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's army. Cynical, soon-to-retire Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) hears about the map and masterminds a mission to track down the gold before anyone else discovers its existence. The foursome reach the village where they believe the riches are hidden, and are greeted by a crowd of Iraqis who think they've come to help overthrow Saddam's military. The American thieves ignore the civilians' pleas until they realize they need them to load up the gold. The turning point in the narrative comes when Saddam's men shoot a frightened mother to death, and the Americans realize they're about to leave the scene of a massacre. A shootout ensues, and suddenly the Yanks find themselves on the run with tons of gold-and an entire community of displaced Iraqis.

As director, Russell manages a risky blend of comedy, action, violence and suspense. The movie is at its best depicting the incongruities of an ancient culture exposed to modern-day Western cultural influences. Captured by the enemy, Barlow makes a cell-phone call from his primitive bunker to his wife back in the States, while the Rodney King video plays on a TV set in the background. Iraqi militia debate whether the Lexus or the Infiniti is available in a convertible. A fleeing enemy soldier stops to grab a pile of jeans as artillery explodes around him. The booty retrieved from the Iraqis is an implicit jab at the filthy-rich Kuwaitis America was defending, as the movie delights in showing warehouses filled with luxury cars and electronic equipment. More seriously, the movie makes the point that the Bush administration encouraged anti-Saddam forces in Iraq to rise up and then promptly abandoned them, and that Saddam's military was trained in barbaric interrogation techniques by Iraq's onetime ally, America. Three Kings is generally more sympathetic to Arabs than most Hollywood fare, but it's equally pro-American, despite its foreign-policy attacks: The Iraqi rebels express a fondness for Western material comforts, and it's a bunch of rugged Yankee individualists who ultimately save their hides.

With luck, Three Kings will make the traditional action audience think a little about the expediency and lack of real altruism that often determines America's role as world police force. Those who couldn't care less will be content with a number of thrilling set-pieces that reveal an unexpected kinetic side to Russell's talents. (Russell also shows the consequences of violence in powerfully imaginative fashion.) Clooney again proves a forceful action lead, though his character isn't well-developed enough to make his crisis of conscience altogether convincing. Hard-core rapper Ice Cube is downright likeable as the most religious of the leads, and Wahlberg (Boogie Nights) ably pulls off Barlow's transition from self-preservation to compassion. Jonze, the music-video director behind Being John Malkovich, has dubious comic-relief duties as ignorant Southerner Vig, as does the talented Nora Dunn in the thankless role of a pushy reporter. Shot in wide-screen with a distinctively washed-out look by Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects), Three Kings has style and attitude to spare. It's certainly one of the more provocative and entertaining movies of the fall, even if its message isn't all it should be.

--Kevin Lally