Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Moynahan, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, Ian Holm, Eammon Walker
Lord of War trades in irony. So it's particularly apt that its greatest irony is that it starts out the work of a filmmaker well aware that he's dealing with a visual medium and ends up as the work of a filmmaker who's retreated into preachy speechifying.
Writer-director Andrew Niccol opens Lord of War with a few words of introduction from main character Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), and then moves into one of the most stunning sequences I've seen in a while, as we follow a bullet (its phallic shape maximized by camera angles) from creation to shipping to loading to being fired straight into some luckless soldier's head -- all set to Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." While the entire sequence may be shocking and chilling, it's also oddly beautiful. It nails Niccol's point home without recourse to the kind of unpersuasive verbalizing that finally bogs down this overlong mixed bag of a movie.
The central problem - one of several smaller ones -- is that the director has made a cheekily amoral movie about a wholly amoral man that Niccol then tries to turn into an important statement that wishes it had a sympathetic protagonist. There are two insurmountable obstacles at work here. First, it's impossible to make Yuri Orlov sympathetic after nearly six reels of -- sometimes charming, frequently amusing -- self-serving duplicity. Second, and worse still, Niccol's big statement that arms dealing is amoral and that the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France and China are bigger arms dealers than Yuri is neither revelatory, nor does it justify his character. In fact, it only underscores that the best and most powerful moments in Lord of War are its first few minutes.
However, there is a brilliantly cynical movie hidden inside the 122-minute running time -- one that might have run about 30 minutes less. Much like Niccol's previous film, the underrated S1m0ne, the story deals with a man who has created a monster he can't shake, though that core idea doesn't really work here because there's never much more to Yuri than his self-created monster. In S1m0ne Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) may be a dreamer and a bit of a pretentious boob, but he's out to create something he believes in. Yuri, on the other hand, is merely out for personal gain. All he wants is to rise above his miserable poverty as a Russian immigrant in Brooklyn's Little Odessa neighborhood, live in the style to which he'd like to be accustomed, and acquire his dream girl, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan, I, Robot), as a trophy wife. These desires may be understandable, but they're ultimately too shallow to make us care about Yuri.
The film charts roughly 20 years of Yuri's life -- his rise, his fall and his subsequent rise -- as a dealer in illegal arms (illegal in deed, if not always in word). That Nicolas Cage never ages in those 20 years is believable enough, since Cage has looked pretty much the same for 20 years, but it's a bit much to swallow that no one seems to get any older -- especially Jared Leto as Cage's cokehead, alcoholic brother, Vitaly.
There are several plot devices that are so old they have moss growing on them. And then the subplots about Yuri's brother, family and wife are the least interesting parts of the film. Vitaly quickly becomes a tiresome intrusion, while Ava is ultimately not much better than Yuri himself, though the film seems to think she is. It's made clear early on that she knows that Yuri's wealth is not the result of his vaguely described "transport business," but she's happy enough to turn a blind eye to whatever it is -- until intrepid, idealistic, utterly humorless Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) rubs her nose in the reality of it all. That she only then reacts makes her no less the willing victim than she had been all along.
These things to one side, there's a brutally vicious, sufficiently compelling black comedy at work in Lord of War that makes Niccol's movie ultimately worth seeing. And while nothing ever quite lives up to the film's opening, the director creates a number of scenes -- Yuri's first encounter with warlord Andre Baptist Sr. (Eammon Walker, TV's Oz), an hallucinatory fantasy, the final confrontation between Yuri and Valentine -- that are frankly brilliant. Too bad that the entire film doesn't live up to these individual moments.
Rated R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke