The boys are back in town.

But it's different this time. They've got the same black plastic rifles and the same weary grace and the same faded camouflage. They still drink Bud from cans and excoriate the enemy in scorchingly profane, racist terms. They still love hard rock on the boombox and the secret pleasures of destruction, playing tough, the whole pure swagger of it.

Here's the difference. It's one question: What are we doing here?

The year is 1991, and the location is the Iraqi desert, and the boys--and just as many girls this time--would rather be back home. This is the post- (way post-!) Vietnam army of David O. Russell's brilliant, if somewhat flawed, "Three Kings," which re-imagines the old war movie in postmodern terms.

What Russell comes up with is something heavy on attitude, editing and the cynicism of an old whore, even as it finds deep inside the most jaded of men a secret yearning for those best old things--a good war to fight, a cause to die for and a sense of a soldier's worth in the world.

Our hero in Russell's edgy vision of the last war we won with dumb kids instead of smart bombs is Archie Gates, Maj., U.S.A., ex- of Special Forces and Combat Applications Group Delta, currently a warrior in PIO (not exactly Delta, says this veteran of Public Information Office travail) and about to add "(Ret.)" to his resume.

Listen up: If you get that (Ret.) as a major, you've had some career problems, made some political mistakes, told some field-grade where to eat his lunch. But one look at Archie, at his ease with the toys of war, including guns and boys, and his exhaustive intimacy with the ephemera of battle, and you know he's seen some stuff.

Archie (George Clooney, tough and believable and full of a leader's charisma) sniffs (the operative word) out an interesting possibility. He's heard that some reservists have rounded up an Iraqi prisoner with something hidden where the moon don't shine.

After field-expedient sanitation measures, the object turns out to be a map, and the rumor is flying that it reveals the location of the gold bullion that Saddam Hussein stole from the Kuwaitis but couldn't get back to Baghdad before the American Warthogs turned his armored forces into broken toasters.

Archie, with his command authority and shrewd tactical sense, simply takes over the squad of amateurs--Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and a private, Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze)--and sets out to find the gold to finance a retirement for himself and, for the guys, either an Infiniti or a Lexus convertible (depending on which company makes a convertible, an issue about which the men argue constantly). It's strictly an "Operation Mad Ball," a "Kelly's Heroes" kind of mission.

They enter a blasted zone. Scorched tanks, decomposed corpses, endless bunkers filled with stolen microwaves, CDs, Levi's, blenders, weeping people--mute testimony to America's pop cultural imperialism even among those taught to hate it.

The squalor of destruction and abandonment is everywhere, and Russell's sense of the scabby detritus of battle is first-class. I thought of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" but also of Thomas Pynchon's shattered Germany in "Gravity's Rainbow."

Also everywhere: Iraqi soldiers, who, having officially finished second, are no longer an enemy that can be shot on sight but must merely be tolerated. This is fine by Archie's heroes, as all they want is loot and the big freedom bird home.

But war and politics are not so accommodating. It seems that a president lacking that vision thing has encouraged the Iraqi people to revolt, but now that he's won his victory in the sand, he's ordered his own men to stand pat while the Iraqi security forces round up the usual suspects.

An interesting situation: Archie and the guys Humvee through a holocaust in search of missing gold, trying to keep their moral blinders on, trying not to calculate the meaning of all the passports gathered in bins in abandoned Iraqi bunkers.

Of course, we see what's happening before they do: Having fought a war for somebody else's oil, they now find the temptation overwhelming--in, of all places, their own hearts--to fight a moral war for people being systematically obliterated. When the guns are finally fired, not just gold but something far more precious is at stake.

Of course, that's the film's plot; that's not the film. The film is something else: a color-bleached meditation on war, youth, disillusionment, the cruel ironies that are the way of the world and even redemption. Its rhythms and its very sense of existence are jangled, like recollections drawn through a sieve of confusion.

It has the feel of no other film, though some of Oliver Stone's more exotic acid trips come to mind. It shows what is, yes, and then it shows what could be, what is anticipated and what is possible almost simultaneously.

Contrapuntal to this narrative is Russell's pedantry. When Archie tells his men what happens when a bullet hits, the camera clinicalizes it like a training film for forensic ballisticians, showing a bullet pulsating through viscera, opening up a temporary stretch cavity that then elastically contracts to a smaller cavern that then fills with green, infected bile from the perforated bowels. Not pleasant, but quite instructive.

Russell does so many things so well. He has a firm grip on character, and each GI--Wahlberg, Cube and Jonze are extremely proficient--has a precisely imagined personality, as do the host of subsidiary characters, such as an intellectual Iraqi interrogator (Said Taghmaoui) and a sexually frustrated media star (Nora Dunn) more upset over dead birds than dead people.

And the script crackles with black wit: I loved a moment when Clooney pulls out an advanced illumination device, the young soldiers ooh and ahh, and he comments with deadpan bravado: "That's why we're so bad: We have all the cool flashlights."

But one can equally quarrel with much. It seems to me that Russell loses track of his narrative, and too much time is spent moving groups of people here and there and then here again. The gold--the movie's Holy Grail--actually becomes troublesome emotionally and particularly as the subject of endless negotiation, because we don't care about it so much as we do the people. Overall, the film needs a cleaner start-to-finish line.

Some gags are great; others aren't. When a machine gun blown from an exploding truck whirls across the sand to strike a second vehicle's windshield in a split second, we're seeing an explosion as it's never been portrayed before, a cruel joke with a crueler whimsy that turns inert objects into lethal shrapnel. That's fabulous and disturbing, and makes you rethink all the noise-amplified propane puffs that have stood in for real explosions for years.

But then there's a lame old-movie gag in which somebody brings down a chopper with a Nerf football carrying a load of C-4. Why, when there are so many neater ways to drop a whirly, particularly in a modern battle zone? Some say that an M-249 squad automatic weapon is nice, but I hold with those who favor the 40mm grenade launcher under the M-4 variant of the M-16, which for destruction would suffice.

The final after-action debriefing on "Three Kings" would read as follows: While it feels different, it really isn't different. Under it all lurks our old friend Duke's myth, "The Green Berets," about old-fashioned warriors in a new-fashioned war, and about men learning to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and to risk not their bank accounts but their butts.

Three Kings (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for clinically extreme gore and violence and a multifarious tapestry of racial epithets.

CAPTION: George Clooney, Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg discover more than just the missing gold in "Three Kings," David Russell's meditation on war.