Lord of War Movie Review

Nicolas Cage addresses the camera directly at the start of Lord of War - standing in a battle-torn street, with a carpet of bullet casings under his feet and automatic weapons popping off in the distance - letting us know that there's a gun for one out of every 12 people on the planet. This is a problem, but not in the way you or I might think, since he wants to know, "How do we arm the other 11?" It's a jaunty joke of an opening, in a deathmask grimace sort of way, and just may lull you into thinking that what lays ahead is a Grand Guignol satire on modern warfare and the soulless arms dealers who fuel it; a M*A*S*H for the lawless post-Cold War years. Alas, such hopes are dashed by the appearance of Jared Leto as the world's least likely Urkranian-American gunrunner and borscht chef.

Andrew Niccol wrote and directed this globe-trotting comedy, taking an amalgam of five real-life arms dealers and pooling them into the blithely amoral Yuri Orlov (Cage). One imagines that Niccol cherry-picked the most interesting incidents from the exploits of all five, and indeed there are many moments when the film does its level best to pull back the curtain on this worldwide machinery of death. The problem is that Niccol, as he showed in such gleaming symbolic edifices like Gattaca and his warm script for Peter Weir's The Truman Show, is a true humanist at heart, and just can't bring himself to stick to the story. It's apparently not enough to just tell us about Orlov, Niccol's film feels it must explain him, so we can feel that dark thrill when he abandons his soul altogether. This leaves us shifting abruptly from Orlov's international capers - often vividly rendered with a black humor that surprisingly tart for Niccol - to his home life, where he lies to his adoring, hardly inquisitive model-wife (Bridget Moynahan) and deal with his slacker junkie brother (Leto). A Scorsese would have know how to whip all these elements together into a frenzied stew where Orlov's business life crashes headlong into his private life with calamitous results. But under Niccol's cool eye, Cage barely breaks a sweat. He may be the devil but he's calm about it.

That being said, Cage is close to the best thing about Lord of War. Toned a couple notches down from his closest equivalent role, Face/Off, he gives Orlov a measured grace and breezy cynicism that makes him surprisingly likeable, even when he's smuggling guns to a savage dictator and abetting massacres. Up against him, few of the other characters have a chance. Moynahan plays a former model turned failed actress all too well, while Ethan Hawke gnashes his teeth vainly in the role of Jack Valentine, gung-ho straight-arrow Interpol agent and Orlov's nemesis. Leto couldn't be more ridiculous as Yuri's brother Vitaly, who grew up with him on the same tough Brighton Beach streets, each disappointing their Ukrainian parents in their own way. A lengthy subplot involving Vitaly's cocaine addiction is filed away every time it starts to get interesting, and what's worse is that in the end the relationship between the brothers hardly illuminates Yuri's character at all.

About the only person who can match Cage in the film is the great Eammon Walker, who plays Liberian dictator Andre Baptiste, a filthy creature of a human being. But somehow the film seems to have more sympathy in its heart for Orlov - whose business aids and abets all the savageries we witness - than it does for Baptiste, and it's hard not to see a tinge of racism in the depiction. Of all the sinister characters we witness in the film, from the drunk Red Army colonel who gamely sells Orlov several divisions' worth of armaments to the rival arms dealer (Ian Holm) who prefers to take sides in the wars he supplies - hardly any are presented sans humanity, save for Baptiste and his equally brutal son.

There are many who will cheer the film's stance near the end of this half-successful film, when it makes a late-coming effort to indict the major civilized nations as complicit in the river of munitions that flows from the First World to the Third. But it's a point weakly made, with depressingly little to back it up given how much supporting evidence there is out there. Who knows, maybe less time with Leto, Moyanhan, and the others would have left room to include more of what one imagines was the whole point in making this film to begin with.

Lord of the flies of war.


Lord of War Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2005


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