In the opening scene of this gripping antiwar satire, an American soldier shoots an Iraqi on a desert mound. It is his first kill in the Gulf War that has already ended. Back in camp, the U.S. troops are celebrating the ceasefire with a big party but they have no idea what they've done or won. Many of them missed the war on CNN and all the accompanying official explanations.

David O. Russell has proven to be a masterful director of satires with two other gems, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, to his credit. Three Kings is a funky film that perfectly catches the absurdity of the Gulf War, from the fuzzy rationale for U.S. involvement to the abandonment of the Iraqi anti-Saddam resistance movement that had come to believe they could count on foreign help.

The ragtag story revolves around the efforts of four American soldiers to go for the gold. They get a map from a prisoner of war showing the locations of bunkers where Saddam Hussein has hidden the gold, jewels, cars, and other loot stolen from Kuwait's sheiks and oil millionaires. Ex-Green Beret Archie Gates (George Clooney) wants payback for all that he's had to endure over the years as a warrior. Troy (Mark Wahlberg) yearns to make a better life for his wife and infant daughter. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) is an illiterate redneck who's along for the ride, and Chief (Ice Cube), an airport baggage handler from Detroit, is a Christian man who's willing to take whatever Jesus puts in front of him.

Russell peppers this always surprising film with strange and unsettling images: a cow blown up by a cluster bomb, an Iraqi dissenter's wife shot in the head before her husband and young daughter, a sequence where the Americans and their Arab compatriots endure a white gas attack, a recurring glimpse of what a bullet does to a victim's innards, a scary scene in which an American soldier is tortured by an Iraqi who is obsessed with Michael Jackson, and the desperate efforts of a TV reporter (Nora Dunn) to tell the truth while trying to bag an Emmy Award.

Like the three kings of the Christmas story in the Bible, these characters start out on one path and end up on another. They typify the best and the worst that is in us as Americans — an avaricious consumerism, a greedy selfishness, a love of the underdog, and a willingness to lend a helping hand to those in jeopardy. Three Kings spits in the face of war and salutes creative compassion as a healing balm.