Lord of War (2005) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexuality, brief nudity, drug use, and language
Running time: 122 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Moynahan, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, Ian Holm, Yevgeni Lazarev, Eamonn Walker, Sammi Rotibi, Donald Sutherland (voice)
Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Review published May 24, 2007
Very loosely based on Russian arms deal Viktor Bout (aka "the Merchant of Death"), and composites of several other figures in the world of arms dealing, Lord of War tells the story of Yuri Orlov (Cage, National Treasure), a Ukrainian raised in the United States that finds a way to make a fast buck buying and selling weapons and ammunition to various factions involved in aspects of war, initially with underworld types in his neighborhood, then eventually expanding throughout the world. It doesn't matter to him who he sells the weapons to or who they determine to kill with them. He's a business man, pure and simple, selling a product just like any other. He's also not above twisting, and sometimes breaking the law in order to get the big payoff, but he's resourceful enough to never get caught, either by the tenacious Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Hawke, Assault on Precinct 13), or his blissfully ignorant wife, Ava (Moynahan, I Robot).
There's a certain artifice to Andrew Niccol's (Simone, Gattaca) very Scorsese-ish Lord of War that is never able to be shaken, despite some very interesting developments in the story itself. Starting off with the strange casting of Cage as a former Ukrainian, further compounded with Jared Leto (Panic Room, Urban Legend) trying to pass as his younger brother. Cage's matter-of-fact, lackadaisical voice over certainly does little to draw us in to his peculiar world philosophy, and colorful villains and wacky side characters also detract from the feeling of authenticity in the story. Niccol skirts the line between dark comedy, drama, and thriller, never quite making a compelling case for any of them individually.
Niccol tries to give the film a sweeping feel, not dissimilar to GoodFellas, but the classic rock tunes are too obvious (Clapton's "Cocaine" is a predictable choice for the coke scene), and that lack of real thought and resonance continues throughout this smart but highly empty film. We never quite see these characters as real people, their situations as authentic, and even taking their peculiar interactions as metaphoric, it never rises above its mundane, simplistic tendencies to be that intricate, spellbinding tapestry Niccol seems to be going for. One of the key scenes involves an arms deal where the "bad guys" are waiting for the deal to go down so that they can immediately set to killing a nearby village, when all along, they had the weapons and firepower to do so, even before the deal.
For all of its flaws, Lord of War is certainly ambitious, and occasionally taps into certain ironies that almost make it nearly work as a satire (the machine gun chiming like a cash register with every bullet fired is memorable), but never carries the momentum long before the tone changes into a lazy comedy, stagnant drama, or mild farce. It isn't without intelligence, it's just that it doesn't connect all of the dots necessary in the narrative development to be anything other than a collection of interesting scenes that never coagulate into a force to drive its cynical message home. Niccol, who up to this point has earned a good reputation for exploring themes of reality vs. fantasy, takes a story wholly rooted in real-world politics based on actual people and events and makes his least believable film to date. Perhaps there's something to be said for NOT keeping it real to earn respect.
©2007 Vince Leo