Lord of War
2005, R, 122 min. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Starring Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Ian Holm, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker, Sammi Rotibi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 16, 2005
Andrew Niccol, the writer-director of Gattaca and S1mOne (as well as the writer of The Truman Show and The Terminal), shines his usual cynicism on the subject of gunrunning in his new film, Lord of War. The movie is a strange amalgam of compelling visuals and fascinating vocational details forged with deep moral ambivalence and often hollow didacticism. The film’s stunning opening sequence, in which we observe (often in extreme close-up and glistening phallic displays) the life cycle of a bullet from the bullet’s point of view – as it’s manufactured, shipped, sold, and finally lodged between the eyes of an African kid – is a visual tour de force. The sequence instantly sucks us into the gun-crazy world of Niccol’s central protagonist Yuri Orlov (Cage). Orlov, who emigrated to the United States with his family as a boy, grew up in the crime-ridden Little Odessa section of Brighton Beach. As a young man searching for his purpose in life, he has the breakthrough revelation that guns are what makes the world go ’round. He even compares the thrill of his first gun sale to the thrill of first sex. Yet Orlov is no white-heat-crazed gun nut whose yen for firepower is a classic substitute for sexual inadequacies. His devotion to firearms derives from an economic understanding that the world’s demand for guns will never waver and selling them is the surest path to eternal riches: supply and demand. Orlov will sell to anyone; he takes no sides in political disputes, unlike his competitor Simeon Weisz (Holm), who dismisses the neophyte gunrunner Orlov for his international promiscuity. Many of the details of how Orlov conducts business turn out to be as riveting as a Tom Clancy novel. However, Lord of War gives short shrift to its secondary characters: More about the contradictions between Weisz (who claims to be in the business to make governments, not money) and Orlov would have been welcome, as would more fleshed-out depictions of Orlov’s trophy wife (Moynahan), literal brother-in-arms (Leto), and dogged Interpol agent Valentine (Hawke), who plays cat to Orlov’s canary. It’s been many years since we’ve seen Cage as well-cast as he is here: The actor’s cynical bravado is put to great use in Lord of War. Still, more than anything, what bogs down the film is its overweening use of voiceovers – a narrative crutch in the best of circumstances and a pedantic tool in the worst. The technique increases the feeling that Niccol has only recently discovered the dirty underworld of arms dealing and now needs to proclaim its evils to the world. In this regard, Lord of War is messy and ill-defined, and as scattershot as its grand topic.