Why Three Kings ranks among Spike Jonze’s best work

His role as good-ol’-boy Conrad Vig is one of the great examples of directors acting.


Bekzhan Sarsenbay

In an alternate reality, Spike Jonze is preparing for Zoolander 3, did one of Woody Allen’s European movies (a good one), and has an Oscar for playing Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the fact remains: Spike Jonze is a great comedic actor. Sure, he’s also a widely acclaimed director, Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis’ sworn nemesis and the creator of many iconic music promos. To me, however, his sweet hick in David O Russell’s 1999 feature, Three Kings, is a standout performance in a movie that’s full of them.

“Dang didn’t think I’d see anyone get shot in this war.” That’s Conrad Vig’s reaction to a dying Iraqi soldier, shot by Troy Barlowe (Mark Wahlberg). Vig is a Reservist, and the fourth king of the movie, the one that got left out of the title. Guess that would make him d’Artagnan? Before he was shipped out to liberate Kuwait, he spent time shooting things up in his backyard. During the Gulf War, and its aftermath, when the movie takes place, he is a passenger, moved by the actions of other characters. Played by Jonze, Vig is a lot of things: yokel, the younger brother, the howling voice of O’Russell’s blue collar Middle America.

Jonze is also the Academy Award winning director of Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are and Her, and a director whose public persona is the embodiment of tenderness. But in 2001, he was still a young upstart, in the process of wrapping up his own first feature, Being John Malkovich, when his friend David O Russell offered him a supporting role in his new film.

Vig is a character who remains in a state of complete bewilderment throughout the entire movie, and therefore has the best, and most appropriate lines. ‘Like a cartoon, it’s fucking crazy,’ is his response to a recently blown up cow. ‘That’s dumb, it should be the other way around,’ he retorts when George Clooney’s Archie Gates tells him that courage to do things comes after you’ve done them.

He’s the kid in the equation, following the others around and getting into trouble. Barlowe and Vig’s relationship is the sweetest thing about a mostly cynical movie, the former constantly apologising for the latter’s ignorance. Jonze’s slight stature and nasally voice give Conrad a Bugs Bunny quality: his actions are reflexes, guided by basic instincts. He’s an American on a vacation that just happens to include guns and Saddam Hussein. It’s a satirical character, and Jonze embraces the absurdity, playing him with his mouth open, quizzical expression on face, but never losing that shot of humanity.

If you watch the Behind the Scenes featurette included on the DVD, Jonze not only keeps up his accent off-camera, he seems to stay completely in character. ‘We got a lot of shit blown up, definitely. There’s a ton of explosions that we have to deal with and I don’t know, there’s good ones too, and they’re crazy,’ is a line Conrad Vig would say if he was in an action film. According to O Russell, Jonze, ‘just enjoyed fucking around. For him, it was like riding a BMX bike off a ramp to see what it was like to act in a movie’. That comes across in the film, and O Russell deliberately keeps the heavy stuff away from him, feeding it in little bits at a time, and Jonze deals with it admirably, if a little awkwardly.

One of the reasons that Jonze’s performance has aged well is that it is still his only major role. He didn’t act in features again for a long time, and nowadays, he sometimes does bit parts in prestige fare, like Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street or Bennett Miller’s Moneyball or his pal’s Jonny Knoxville’s Jackass series. It didn’t have to be that way though. According to O Russell, during Three Kings, the studio was already thinking of him as a potential future star. But the absence of other roles works in Jonze’s favour, because the limited sample stands alone as a pristine showcase.

In Three Kings, he got that rare role for a non-actor: removed from his actual persona, fully thought-out, and constructed in a manner that is aware of his limitations.

Published 7 Aug 2015

Tags: David O Russell Spike Jonze

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