Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Review: Lord of War
Disclaimer: This review contains SPOILERS.
Nicholas Cage is an actor who can't seem to take his role anything but seriously. I have a suspicion that the man just can't do camp. Which is why Ghost Rider was such an incredibly jarring movie, even for a certified comic book geek like me. However, in a movie like this, where everything hinges on his character and his unique point of view, Cage's faith and intensity raises what could have been a mediocre movie into a very good one.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an Ukranian - American who witnesses a shootout in a restaurant and realizes that the only people who profit from random (and not-so-random) acts of violence are the people who deal in the hardware. Pretty soon he is selling his first submachine-gun and realizing that he is a bloody good salesman. In a profession where a customer can blow your head off using your own product, Yuri's silver tongue and quick thinking come in handy not just in keeping him alive, but also in making him very rich, very fast. Helping Yuri in his ascent is his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), who has reservations but goes along because Yuri is family. However, it is clear that Vitaly, although almost as quick witted as Yuri, is far more deeply affected by the violence their products are used to perpetuate.
All this happens at a breathless pace and about 40 minutes in, Yuri is already at the top of the heap and the film starts branching into multiple subplots as he has an affair with a model( who he has loved ever since he saw her on billboards as a young man), juggles mercurial clients and suppliers, outwits rivals, and evades the law in the form of Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who knows what Yuri is doing, but can't nab him because he is too by the book to break - or even bend - the law himself. His run - ins with Valentine are almost black comedy, as he uses various ingenious (but never violent, at least, not directly) ways to remain just out of reach.
Cage plays Yuri with a hint of a swagger, but not too much . After all, many of his customers are temperamental people who would be too happy to put his own products to use at even the hint of a perceived insult. But he knows he's good at what he does, and continues to justify his profession with various rationalizations just so he can continue to keep dealing in weapons. As he says in a rare moment of vulnerability, it's not the money, it's because he's good at it. Utterly unaffected by morals, Yuri will sell to anybody (except Osama, but not for the reasons you might suspect). So good is he at distancing himself from the violence he peddles every single day, that when he is forced to pull the trigger himself for the first time, he goes through severe hallucinations and feels he is 'cursed'. In his own way, Yuri is a dreamer, walking through a bubble of self-created hypocrisies where he is simply a cog in the machine, where his actions mean nothing because someone else would take his place anyway and where he does no evil because he is not forcing anyone to use his guns.
The movie is shot beautifully. From the huge Ukranian army bases where stacks of guns and gunships lie unused, to the dingy war - torn streets of Liberia where the dictator's son brandishes his gold plated AK-47 in the middle of abject poverty, all have a gritty feel to them. However, the visuals are perhaps a little too heavy handed in their use of symbolism. Take the shot where a vulture is standing over a prone body as Yuri enters his hotel in Liberia, or the little girl asking him if her severed arm will grow back. They all try to hammer home the point that what Yuri is BAD. A pity really, because even if you never sympathize with him, you understand Yuri. You see that he comes alive only when he's making a sale or eluding the law. People chase their dreams all the time. It's a pity his involves selling helicopter gunships to warlords.
If the film has an issue, it's that it tries to be too many things . It's best seen as a faithful look into the world of international arms smuggling through the eyes of a fictional dealer. Unfortunately, it also tries to be a thriller with Valentine repeatedly attempting to close in on Yuri. This does not get enough time and as a result, end up being rather choppy sequences of confrontation between the two separated by periods where you almost forget Valentine even exists. There is no tension, and almost no feeling of Velentine slowly closing in on his prey. Ethen Hawke is perfectly serviceable as the steel eyed agent, but really gets almost no screen time. I guess it was necessary to have some kind of closure to the story, but it could have been handled better. However, it is still a brilliant and authentic look at the gun-running and what it means to the world at large.
There is an elegant sequence where the camera slowly rolls over an AK-47. In most action movies it would be basic gun-porn, but here it really shows how Yuri sees his products, as smooth, beautiful, elegant, reliable, even sexy machines. The fact that the voice-over in that sequence has a distinct sigh to it and it cuts in right after he's started undressing a woman in a hotel room is not a coincidence. I guess it's also why many ordinary, law-abiding people get excited by guns. Sometimes it's best not to think too far. Yuri made an entire career of it.
PS. This movie might have one of the best opening credit sequences I have ever seen. Here it is in its entirety.