He said, she said: ‘Lord of War’
“Lord of War” fires a new twist on the intense portrayals of illegal suppliers. We’ve seen plenty of hard-hitting, drug-running dramas (“Blow” and “Traffic” come to mind), but we haven’t seen many arms dealers.Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) begins “Lord of War” saying there are more than 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation – one for every 12 people on the planet. His only question: “How do we arm the other 11?”
He doesn’t apologize for his profession and even argues that tobacco and alcohol kill more people than his guns. His younger brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto), doesn’t share the same emotional armor; he turns to cocaine and alcohol to ease his conscience.The dichotomy between the two brothers adds a rich psychological layer to the story, which eventually builds into explosive proportions. The other fascinating contrast and comparison with which screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol hits the mark occurs between Yuri and Liberian dictator Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker). Yuri never takes sides – he sells to any country for any reason equally, as long as customers pay – until Baptiste forces Yuri to make a deadly choice. The scene is like witnessing a drug addict choose between his lifestyle and his morals, and watching Yuri deal with the aftermath is just as compelling.As if the relational contrasts aren’t enough, “Lord of War” adds a cat-and-mouse chase between Yuri and Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), as well as a disturbing social message.It packs almost as much intensity as “Hotel Rwanda,” though it misfires with a couple melodramatic scenes, mostly from Yuri’s model wife, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). She blindly accepts her million dollar house and 8-carat earrings, never questioning what exactly her husband does for a living.Though the acting is fairly consistent and Cage pulls off an arms dealer with his shifty, smooth charm, I still kept seeing “Nicolas Cage.” He didn’t quite disappear into his character, like Johnny Depp in “Blow.” But the reality of the story overshadows any melodramatic or “Nicolas Cage” moments, creating a compelling, entertaining film. In fact, Niccol based Yuri on five actual gunrunners and said the real gunrunners he worked with (to use their stockpiles for scenes) were more cooperative and efficient than the studio or crew.The strange thing about “Lord of War” is, Nicolas Cage never seems to inhabit arms dealer Yuri Orlov’s very real world of bullets, bucks, blow and babes.
Considering where “Lord of War” came from – the same dangerous mind behind “The Truman Show” and “S1m0ne” – it creates a strange juxtaposition: Despite being grounded in sound economics and gritty detail, Yuri’s world somehow, sometimes seems less real than the enormous high-tech reality show Jim Carrey inhabited as Truman Burbank. It’s especially weird considering that the props – like the consultants Kimberly mentions – are real. That’s a real tank column Cage is inspecting, not digital, and those are real guns they’re holding in their hands, not props. Maybe the actors took some sort of glee in real gunrunners showing them how to use real guns, and perhaps that explains the giddiness that makes what’s supposed to be a flinty satire a little too much fun for its own good.The sardonic humor’s present in spades. (“The first and most important rule of gunrunning is, never get shot with your own merchandise,” is both the movie’s tagline and a typically caustic quote from Yuri). But the combination of brutal violence, real guns for props and cynical arms dealers don’t add up to the grimy, real-world feel “Lord of War” needs to offset all the one-liners.
The gee-whiz feeling taints the production. For as mawkish as “The Truman Show” could get occasionally, there was a real sense of sadness and yearning beneath its surface, just like the subtle menace underlying “S1m0ne.”Cage is both part of the problem and the solution for “Lord of War.” His greatest service is making Yuri, by all rights a callous war profiteer, sympathetic enough to carry the film. He’s also restrained for once, abandoning his usual tics.True, Cage never seems to inhabit Yuri’s character fully. Beyond the occasional slug of vodka or lapse into his native tongue, he never really establishes any sort of mannerisms that suggest he’s anything but a hard-working everyman who happens to sell arms for a living. But I wonder whether it’s a greater or lesser sin than overplaying it – at least he doesn’t fade in and out of a Ukrainian accent.So if Cage seems like a man without a country, it’s probably part of the plan, but it doesn’t help humanize the story. “Lord of War” remains a flight of fancy into a dark corner of the real world.
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