Friday, September 16, 2005
"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation," Nicolas Cage's character explains in the film's opening narration. "That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?"
"Lord of War" does its best to answer that question, with a biography of a fictional gunrunner that feels like an insider's tell-all about the illegal arms industry.
Filmmaker Andrew Niccol (best known for writing "The Truman Show") not only studied actual gunrunners but recruited their services while making the picture. He found it was cheaper and easier to buy real weapons than have the props department create replicas. He reportedly purchased 3,000 Kalashnikovs (AK-47s) and also borrowed dozens of Russian tanks from a dealer that were en route to a customer in Libya.
Consequently, the film bristles with that rare kind of energy that stems from being immersed in reality, revealing images and details that don't seem the product of a Hollywood effort.
Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a Ukranian immigrant who grew up in New York's Little Odessa neighborhood.
"I'd been running away from violence my whole life when I should have been running toward it," Yuri says.
So together with his drugged-out, hedonistic brother (Jared Leto), Yuri starts selling guns to street hoods in the early 1980s.
As the years pass and the Cold War intensifies, Yuri becomes a bigger fish in an increasingly more profitable pond. Soon he is rubbing shoulders with generals and dictators.
Yuri's reputation also draws the attention of an honest Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke), who doggedly pursues a suspect versed in covering his tracks through loopholes and deceit.
Lord of War ***
Nicolas Cage portrays a charming, amoral gunrunner in this insider's tell-all about the international weapons industry. Filmmaker Andrew Niccol not only studied actual arms dealers but recruited their services while making the picture. Consequently, the film bristles with that rare kind of energy that stems from being immersed in reality.
The "Lord of War" credit sequence immediately announces what audiences should expect. We see a bullet's-eye view of the projectile's own life-cycle - from the item's manufacture to the moment it enters the head of its target: an African child.
Writer-director Niccol continues to take artistic liberties with the project to illustrate his viewpoint. There is one moment where Yuri watches a customer firing a machine gun, and the image turns to slow motion with the sound of each ejected bullet replaced by the "cha-ching" of a cash register.
Beyond all the bells and whistles, audiences will most likely remember the film for Cage's character. Both charming and amoral, intense and indifferent, Cage continues to deliver the kind of dominating performance that elevated quirky efforts such as "Adaptation" and "Matchstick Men."
The drama is essentially a linear travelogue of Yuri's life once he submerges himself into the arms race, which takes him from the orphaned states of the former Soviet Union to the tribal killing grounds of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Gaps in time and distance are bridged through Yuri's constant narration. Typically, this type of device is a sign the screenplay needs revision, but it tends to work here in much the same way Ray Liotta's voice-over helps unify "Goodfellas."
One of the greatest strengths about "Lord of War" is also its main weakness. Cage's "hero" is completely despicable. He's intended to be something of a monster. (Perhaps his last name is supposed to conjure that of Count Orlok, the vampire in "Nosferatu.")
Even when a love interest is introduced (Bridget Moynahan as his trophy wife, Ava), it only reinforces how disconnected he is from conventional emotions.
Viewers expecting to see Yuri undergo some kind of character arc in terms of morality will be disappointed. He's an utterly static individual. While the filmmakers could argue that it would be a sellout to grant him any kind of contrived redemption, this does ensure the movie doesn't lead to any conclusions.
Maybe that's the point. The gunrunners continue to sell their wares regardless of what is going on around them. To these individuals, the fall of communism only means that a whole batch of new countries need guns. The rise of terrorism: more guns.
It's a win-win proposition for the Yuri Orlovs of the world. Their only enemy is when peace threatens to break out.