Nicholas Cage, Bridget Moynahan, Jared Leto
Imagine a political broadcast about the evils of the arms trade. Or a docu-drama about gun-running. And imagine Nicholas Cage is the narrator. That, pretty much, is Lord of War, writer-director Andrew Niccol’s well-meaning but not so hard-hitting film. Apparently based on ‘real events’, Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian-American who gives up his parents’ restaurant, along with his morals, to find a more lucrative lifestyle as an independent, international arms dealer. And in the process becoming, or revealing himself to be, a lying, philandering, smart-talking, coke-supplying git. While his crack-addict brother (Jared Leto) knows the truth, Orlov’s glamour-model wife Ava does not. Trading with despots and evading intrepid Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke), Orlov can’t see any harm. Until it all unravels – slowly.
‘Show, don't tell’ is a movie mantra. But Niccol (Gattaca) tries to do both, erring considerably towards the latter extreme. The voice-over narration is so relentlessly smart and loaded with info, you just can’t take it in. Like the guns Yuri sells, it’s all too polished. While it’s a neat idea to see the film from the oily Orlov’s point of view, the focus squeezes out the drama. Shame, because Jared Leto (Panic Room) is excellent and I, Robot’s Bridget Moynahan under-used. Ian Holm is wasted, though, as a rival dealer. Hawke too struts and frets but doesn’t get much of the stage. Cage is well-cast, but gives his usual one-note, wry performance. The script ignites the politics but the relationships are underwritten.
In spite of the catchy trailer and macho title, this isn’t an action film. Nor a thriller. For most of the movie, you could cut the tension with a spatula, not a knife. Only for the last 30 minutes do you think there’s anything really at stake for Yuri. Ultimately, and appropriately, Niccol’s film is a tragi-comedy, with emphasis on the ‘tragi’. You certainly feel for those touched by Orlov’s bullets or his life. And Niccol bookends the movie to make his point: first off, showing the life-of-a-bullet from factory to victim (a brilliant short film in its own right, making the rest of the movie almost redundant) then with some end-credit captions to make the political message absolutely clear.
Lord of War is an intentionally empty and sobering experience. But it’s beautifully shot throughout and there are some standout – almost iconic – images. And an airplane landing on an African dirt-track is better done and more affecting than Cage’s similar touchdown in Con-Air. Interestingly for a politically-attuned movie, while the film is clearly anti-war, it’s certainly not anti-smoking, with Cage and cast puffing away throughout. Perhaps it’ll inspire someone to make Lord of Fags - although I guess that was done in The Insider.
Lord of War is a laudable and overdue attempt to air an evil often ignored or glamourised in the movies. It challenges the brain - but it also challenges the backside.