Monday, October 17, 2005

Review - Lord of War

"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?"

That's the philosophy of Yuri Orlov, an international arms dealer who has made his fortune from supplying weapons for every major worldwide conflict since the early 80's. For Yuri there is no such thing as a bad war; he scours the newspapers for signs of impending struggles, cheers when hostilities break out and curses when he hears the dreaded phrase "peace talks". Yuri has a somewhat detached mentality when it comes to warfare. He dismisses the many deaths caused by his guns as being none of his business; and when he claims to have never sold weapons to Osama Bin Laden it was simply because Bin Laden's cheques always bounced rather than on any moral grounds.

As the main character of Andrew Niccol's Lord of War, Yuri is a smart and charming personality who's quick on his feet and possesses a nice line in dry, ironic humour. All of this is very good news for Nicolas Cage, whose best performances tend to fit the type of template described here, and he's on fine form in the lead role; making the amoral Yuri a fairly compelling and engaging - if not likeable - character. Unfortunately, little around Cage manages to click in this ambitious but muddled misfire.

Lord of War tells the story of Yuri's rise in the arms trade. Born in the Ukraine (thankfully Cage refrains from attempting an accent), Yuri's family moved to Brooklyn when he was a child and seemed relatively happy to live a simple life running a small restaurant. But that's not enough for Yuri; he's bored and when he spots some Russian gangsters making a hit he's inspired to make his money in the arms trade. It's small fry at first, a few machine guns here and there, but Yuri has big ideas and after bringing his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) in on the act he begins supplying weapons to entire armies.

The way Yuri assembles his wealth and takes advantage of the various conflicts which occurred during the past two decades is smartly depicted by Niccol. Lord of War's opening half hour zips along in stylish fashion with Cage's almost continuous voice-over filling in the gaps in typically sardonic style. It's fortunate for Lord of War that it kicks off at such a pace because as soon as it starts to slow down we begin to notice just how empty it really is.

Andrew Niccol is unquestionably one of the most interesting talents to emerge from Hollywood in the past decade. His scripts have generally been intelligent approaches to the question of technology's impact on the society we live in. He is most famous for providing the screenplay for The Truman Show, which was eventually brought to the screen by Peter Weir, while he has also directed the intriguing Gattaca and the Hollywood satire S1m0ne (an embarrassing farce but one which at least had ideas in its head). Niccol clearly has plenty to say and his visually impressive directing style is always watchable, but Lord of War finds his various messages getting mangled in the delivery.

The problem with Lord of War is that Niccol has an endless amount of facts and figures at his disposal but he just rattles them out as if firing them from an Uzi. The director aims his satirical gun at too many wide-ranging targets and is only intermittently successful. We get the message early on, very early in fact; as the kinetic and inventive opening credits sequence follows a bullet's journey from the factory, through various countries, before ending up in the brain of an African child. It's an arresting opening and it sums up what Lord of War is about in less than three minutes, which makes the subsequent repeating of similar messages rather tiresome. Niccol's screenplay is a muddle of facts in search of a platform, and his film feels infuriatingly didactic as a result.

Lord of War also fails on a basic storytelling level; the cast fail to make us care about the underwritten characters which hampers Niccol's attempts at moralising in the film's second half. Cage is reliably solid in the lead role, giving an energetic and snappy display in a part which plays to his strengths, but Yuri's amoral stance means the rest of the actors have to provide the heart and conscience of the movie. Jared Leto is pretty one-note as Yuri's cokehead brother, Bridget Moynahan can do little with the part of Yuri's trophy wife while poor old Ethan Hawke's dogged Interpol agent is barely a character at all. Ian Holm pops up with an underpowered cameo but it's left to Eamonn Walker to inject the film with a touch of gravitas. His quiet and controlled performance as a Liberian dictator is chilling and brutally effective. Walker's scenes with Cage are the best in the picture and his calm demeanour is so much more effective than the hyperbolic sound and fury approach Niccol employs elsewhere.

Lord of War is a perplexing film. Niccol never quiet meshes the serious-minded lecture he holds in one hand with the irreverent black comedy he holds in the other. Occasionally impressive on the surface, the film is a hollow shell which Niccol uses to deliver age-old facts as if they were startling new revelations. The arms trade is a terrible thing which habitually exploits the world's poorest countries, and the governments of the world's richest countries are the biggest arms dealers of all. We know all this but what are we going to do about it? It would be harsh to criticise Niccol for not being able to provide all the answers, but the disappointment of Lord of War is that he has blown the opportunity to ask the right questions.