i didn’t know what to expect of lord of war. i remember it being a flop at the box office but a rave review from ebert. written and directed by new zealander andrew niccol, all his previous works could be defined as high concept. sometimes they work, as in the case of the truman show and gattaca; sometimes they don’t, as in s1m0ne, and from what i hear, the new movie in time. lord of war thankfully falls in the former category. though it doesn’t feel as innovative and unique as a whole compare to the truman show and gattaca, it’s overall a pretty solid drama.
nicolas cage plays second generation russian immigrant yuri orlov, who also narrates the movie. the first time we see him he’s standing on bullet-covered ground, breaking the fourth wall talking to the audience. this opening is then followed by an amazing opening credit sequence following the creation to the effect of a single bullet, from the point of view of said bullet.
lord of war charts yuri’s career as an international arms dealer, and also deals a bit of his personal life: with a brother played by jared leto (too blonde in fight club, tv’s my so-called life) who sometimes helps him with his business, and a wife (bridget moynahan from the sum of all fears, i, robot) whom he adores since he was a kid. ethan hawke from gattaca plays jack valentine, an agent who’s after yuri. i don’t know if it’s a joke but i was hoping for some kind of potshot at the mpaa. but it’s probably just me.
unlike other movies by niccol where they feel unique regardless of their success, lord of war can be described as goodfellas (or casino) with a career change. this is neither good nor bad. people seem to love the more obvious goodfellas riff boogie nights. in addition to the fourth wall breaking and the narration, niccol also utilizes some classic rock songs during several sequences.
the word “international” here is more than simply geographically but also in scale. instead of an ambulance chaser, yuri can be described as a war (zone) chaser. the film uses historical backgrounds from germany to former soviet russia to africa to the middle east as markets for yuri. one of the many great one liners in the movie is when yuri learns of a peace talk between potential clients (in a limo, with helicopter overhead a la goodfellas), he said he’ll sell to bosnians instead cause when they promise a war, they keep their words. or in the narration when he’s talking about his diverse clients, “i never sold to osama bin laden. not on any moral grounds: back then, he was always bouncing checks.” the yuri character is also supposedly a composite of real life arms dealers, though i don’t know if the real life counterparts are as sympathetic as cage’s character. i highly doubt it.
there’s a small trace of black comedy in the movie, but not enough to deem the movie as such. there are also boarder jokes that seems more at home in sgt. bilko or a naked gun movie. the humor doesn’t really distract but when they show up, they do feel kind of weird. but they are funny.
there are also similarities to david o. russell’s three kings, one of the best movies of the competitive year of 1999. though they share the war aspect and the humor, lord of war lacks the punches that you feel in three kings. lord of war is more of a morality tale based on a bit of history. the political aspect doesn’t factor in as heavy as three kings. in fact, the politics doesn’t really factor in until the climax and by then it feels too little too late. i personally love the jab at our 2000 presidential “election” through the eyes of a foreign warlord. call me old fashioned but more movies should make fun of that “election.”
considering the message i got from the movie, and from its title, it’s a bit disturbing and yet amazing that yuri is quite a likable character. he insists, and perhaps in denial, that he’s simply satisfying the demands of the world, but not involved personally or morally. but released in 2005 (though the movie takes place before that), it’s hard for any audience member, however oblivious to the geopolitical environment at the time, to be naive enough to buy into the character’s rational.
cage is perfect as yuri. yes, we get some mega moments that we are all waiting for and they don’t disappoint but he’s also great in the quieter scenes and the deadpan narration. it’s not the on/off mega/morose switch that we see but a performance that shows different degrees of skills. i can’t quite imagine any other actor playing the role of yuri and that to me, is a testament to the strength of the performance.
moynahan brings depth to the role of more or less the trophy wife thank god it’s not one of the jessicas, jennifers or ambers. special jury prize also goes to eamonn walker (unbreakable, tears of the sun) and sammi rotibi (also tears of the sun) as the african father and son warlords, or as they say, lord of war. (when junior warlord asks yuri for a gun like rambo, yuri replies, “part 1, 2, or 3?”) leto didn’t get much screen time so he’s adequate as the brother. hawke is appropriate in the thankless role of the idealistic agent.
unlike goodfellas or casino though, lord of war doesn’t get into as much details and i never feel that close to the characters. i think maybe it’s because of the cynicism and black comedy. though 90% of the scenes work, it is perhaps a bit too long and repetitive for a two hour movie. but then again, it takes a movie of certain caliber for me to measure against classics like goodfellas and casino.
with lord of war and the weather man in the same year and released about a month apart, it’s baffling that cage has gotten such negative reactions. probably because these two great movies were released between the popular national treasure 1 and the infamous wicker man 2006. there are quite a few highly praised 2005 movies that i haven’t seen but in rejecting the standard bombastic action movie route and the usual cop vs. crook cat and mouse game, lord of war as of now is definitely in the top 10 of 2005, a few slots behind the weather man.