September 19, 2005

Lord of War2 1/2 Stars

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There’s an unwritten expectation in a film starring Nicholas Cage that at some point we’ll get one of those patented Cage freak out moments. Fortunately Lord of War’s writer-director Andrew Niccol spares the audience for once in his morality tale of a gun runner without much morality. Nicholas Cage stars and narrates as the titular “lord of war” Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian immigrant who decides to elevate his station by entering the high stakes world of gunrunning. The film follows his career for 20 years beginning in the early 1980s as he navigates Cold War politics and African civil wars. Along the way he deals with his brother Vitaly’s (Jared Leto) drug addiction, lands his dream girl Ava (Bridge Moynahan, and outwits Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke).

Niccol’s Lord of War owes an amount of debt to Scorsese’s Goodfellas in its story of an amoral man’s career, even borrowing the scene depicting a helicopter’s surveillance. But Niccol does not judge his characters so much as the business and the world they operate in. Yuri sells RPGs and AK-47s like vacuum cleaners, without moralizing and judgment. What the film’s unique opening sequence, showing the first person POV of a bullet’s life, demonstrates is that the consequences in his business can be quite troubling especially in the poorest of countries Yuri deals with.

The film has a point to make about guns in the world and their role in perpetuating conflict. Yuri doesn’t find anything morally wrong in his business but sees it as filling the market demand. In a comparison to the cigarette companies he rationalizes that at least his product has a safety switch. A textual epilogue notes the big sellers of guns are not individuals but the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Yuri attempts to remain emotionally divorced from the effects of his product, but he and especially his brother Vitaly realize that to do so is not human.

Although the film has a message about gun violence in society, I applaud Niccol in remaining true to his characters. Yuri sells guns not only because it’s profitable, but because he’s good at it and he enjoys it. The rush his world provides serves an addiction, one as potent as his brother’s cocaine problem. For Yuri to go through a radical change would be contrived and not serve the film’s window into an amorally wrought world of gunrunners and their clients.

Yuri’s most interesting client comes in the sadistic Liberian Warlord Andre Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker). Despite Baptiste’s murderous actions, he remains extremely charming and likable. This is especially true because he understands Yuri better than anyone else even giving him the moniker “lord of war.” Baptiste especially understands Yuri’s addiction to his gun work and tempts him back in the game after he leaves it to appease his wife.

The film’s heavy handedness often proves undermining especially in its sparse but very obvious pop soundtrack that includes Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Although a fantastic song, I think its time to call a moratorium on the use of “Hallelujah” in film and television. Using songs like these demonstrates lazy writing because they already carry so much emotional significance. Niccol makes a huge error by casting Ethan Hawke as Yuri’s Interpol foil. The emaciated Hawke, although a good actor in the right film like Niccol’s Gattaca, is not a strong enough presence to be the worthy adversary of Cage’s Yuri.

I have to say I admired the subject more than the film itself because it explores a business not often depicted. But a really good movie should bring into its world instead of leaving like its main character: emotionally distant.

Archived article by Oliver Bundy
Sun Contributor