The song "If You Leave Me Now" was recorded by the group Chicago. The performers were incorrectly identified in a movie review in yesterday's Weekend section. (Published 10/02/1999)

"WE THREE KINGS are stealing the gold," sings Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a twang-voiced redneck who has just learned that joining the 1991 Gulf War may be the smartest financial investment he's ever made.

In David O. Russell's enormously entertaining "Three Kings," the war against Saddam Hussein has just ended. And boy was it easy, thanks to the sophisticated attacks from the skies.

But for the career officers and grunts pitching tents in the deserts, where was the fight? And where the glory? As the infantry prepares for its battle-free return, news of a trove of Kuwaiti gold -- plundered by the Iraqis and stashed in desert bunkers -- comes from the unlikeliest of places. I could get clinical about that, but let's just say GI's discover the treasure map on the person of a captured Iraqi soldier.

Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) pores over the document, attended by the reservists who found it: Conrad, Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube). This is it, he thinks. This is the point of the war. This is what we take back. The four soldiers could leave at dawn, raid those bunkers and be back before you could say "AWOL."

"Just one stash would be easy to take," the major tells them. "And that would be enough to get us out of our day jobs, unless you reservists are in love with your day jobs."

There would be some immediate hurdles, of course. Keeping their superiors in the dark would be a big one. So would storming the bunkers, still patrolled by the enemy. They'd also need to evade the clutches of Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), an obnoxious TV news reporter (seemingly inspired by CNN's Christiane Amanpour) who won't let anything get in the way of an exclusive, career-enhancing story.

Chief's an airport baggage handler in Detroit. Troy has started a new family back in Detroit. Conrad is unemployed, never finished high school. Gold for free? No questions asked? No problem, Major, Suh. That's when Conrad sings that "We Three Kings" song.

But as the foursome sets off in their Humvee for Karbala, no one's aware of the biggest hurdle facing their mission: David O. Russell, their omniscient creator.

If you saw Russell's "Spanking the Monkey" or "Flirting With Disaster," you'll know that the writer-director (who scripted "Three Kings" from a story by John Ridley) is the artistic equivalent of provocateur. (See story on Page 46.)

He confounds his character's intentions from the get-go -- almost to the point of terrorism. He wires and rigs his stories with surprise. No one walks through Russell terrain without major incident -- serious or comical. Archie and company discover both.

They learn that there's more to life than gold; that the enemy has faces, hopes and children in danger of bombardment; that the enemy is divided into haves and have-nots, is scared of Saddam, drinks Coca Cola. And when he finds himself trussed with electrical wires to a rudimentary torture device, Troy also learns that the enemy wants to know the problem with Michael Jackson.

"What is the problem with Michael Jackson?" demands his captor, Capt. Sa'id a second time. At that point, things -- as you might guess -- haven't gone exactly as planned. Troy, who has all but forgotten his need for gold, is facing the wrath of a rattled, proud adversary. And in Russell's powerful scheme of things, he's also facing a fellow father, whose compassion exceeds his hatred.

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Said Taghmaoui, the actor who plays Capt. Sa'id, is one of Russell's strongest, anti-bigotry devices; his humanity detonates all over us. There are positive explosions, too, from the numerous Iraqis who figure in the second half of the story, including Amir Abdullah (Cliff Curtis), another Iraqi father and a political thinker, who suffers for his beliefs from Saddam's troops.

On the subject of bigotry, Russell takes on anti-Arabic slurs with unerring, seriocomic panache -- by using every darn one of them. His point is, get this stuff out in the open, then meet the people who supposedly fit the description -- but don't.

But "Three Kings," filmed in bone-dry desertscapes in El Centro, Calif.; Mexicali, Mexico; and Casa Grande, Ariz., is far from tedious, politically correct tract. It's too full of variety, from action-adventure (Troy plugs an Iraqi with amazing precision at the beginning) to black comedy to humanistic drama (less revealed about that, the better). But whatever is going on at the time, Russell is never far from his irreverent taste for the humorous. There's an amusing, running argument between Chief and Troy about whether or not Lexus makes a convertible. And there's a hilariously inspired scene in which our American heroes storm a Republican Guard post in a Mercedes Benz. Russell cuts from the frenzied din of confusion among the fleeing Iraqis -- who are convinced the imported car contains a very angry Saddam -- to the interior of the Benz, where America's finest are listening to the easy sounds of the Eagles' "If You Leave Me Now" on the CD player. And at that point of the movie, there are many more surprises to come.

THREE KINGS (R, 111 minutes) -- Contains gunshot deaths, torture scenes, racial epithets and profanity. Area theaters.