Brimming with cinematic confidence, cynicism, chutzpah plus dramatic bungles, Andrew Niccol’s ambitious “Lord of War” views today’s international arms trade through its anti-hero, a young Ukrainian-American lured by the promise of wealth in the weapons biz. A stark departure for Niccol from his interest in the near-future (“The Truman Show,” “Gattaca,” “Simone”), this globalist dramedy owes much to the political gallows humor of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and the rise-and-fall structure of the conventional biopic. Despite Nicolas Cage’s strongest perf in many a season, ragged shifts in tone will cool aud involvement and keep general B.O. numbers in the modest range.
Few films since Michael Mann’s “The Insider” have tackled a burning, complex contemporary topic with the ferocity and filmic energy that “Lord of War” applies, and Niccol should earn considerable plaudits for his daring approach. Coming fast on the heels of “The Constant Gardener,” Niccol’s film is more original, particularly in its refreshingly politically incorrect angle on Africa.
At the same time, Niccol’s reliance on massive chunks of voice-over narration (care of the hard-working Cage) and a snide tone leave the unfortunate impression that the film is extremely callous toward its subject. “Lord of War” wades in the dangerous waters of politically black humor, which can capsize the most important message without a strong hand in command.
With Yuri Orlov (Cage) speaking directly to the camera from the first moments, followed by an astonishing title sequence filmed from the p.o.v. of a bullet as it goes from being manufactured to puncturing the skull of an African youth, pic’s strengths and problems are instantly on display.
From Yuri’s blithe attitude toward his work as a weapons dealer to the almost goofy camera angle of the bullet, the comic tone is established and then suddenly violated by real violence, leaving auds unsure how to respond.
Yuri narrates his upbringing in Gotham’s Little Odessa quarter, where he and brother Vitali (Jared Leto) were raised by their Ukrainian emigre parents. Yuri witnesses a mob hit in 1982, and realizes that there’s a real demand for guns and bullets — and cash could be made supplying them.
From strictly small-time customers, Yuri, in almost absurdly quick order, brings now-partner Vitali along to the West Berlin arms fair of 1983, where master arms dealer Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) gives him a one-sentence brush-off: “I’m in the business to change governments.”
Yuri, though, is in this business to do business — a crucial distinction that defines his character for the rest of the film. If “Lord of War” makes its most obvious point by decrying the human cost of the global proliferation of arms, its subtler point is that in Yuri’s view, selling AK-47s or helicopter gunships is no different from selling refrigerators. Even this is made comic, with a slo-mo shot of an automatic machine gun accompanied by the sound of a clinging cash register.
Soon, Yuri is in charge of illegally registered sea vessels. Charging on board is dogged Interpol agent Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the relentless cat to Yuri’s mouse for most of the remaining 90 minutes.
Editor Zach Staenberg deserves high credit for the film’s rollicking sense of time and years whizzing by. On his frequent international trips, Yuri continually sees a girl from his youth, Little Odessa goddess Eva (Bridget Moynihan), now a supermodel. While Vitali gives in to the temptations of cocaine, Yuri elaborately arranges to track down Eva, and soon has her as his trophy wife in lavish Central Park East digs.
Pic shifts to a more troublesome midsection, divided roughly between a dull, unconvincing set of domestic scenes involving Yuri and Eva’s parched marriage, and Yuri’s dealings with a bloodthirsty Liberian dictator named Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker).
Regularly dressed in his “Reservoir Dogs”-style black suit in a country filled with dead bodies and muddy streets, Yuri looks increasingly strange in Liberia’s mayhem. A sense of doom slowly descends on Yuri’s character, most brilliantly visualized when Valentine catches up with him again in an airborne chase and handcuffs him on the ground of a dusty airfield.
Niccol’s script is finally too much for the film to hold onto. Yuri’s life, globe hopping and two-facedness appear to be more than any one feature could possibly contain.
While the Yuri character is never less than fascinating, the script struggles with its approach to him. Lost along the way are some potential dramatic anchors, such as the father-son dynamic between Weisz and Yuri that seems to be a central story point but is never developed.
Nor does Yuri and Vitali’s relationship ever ring quite true, including a third-act climax that nearly unravels the entire film.
What’s missing most in the story is a certain humanity that Cage must provide on his own. He brings a theatrical irony to bear here with brilliance, even as his ever-present voice on the soundtrack serves to give texture and dimension — even if it goes on much too long.
By contrast, Walker is far too emphatic and one-note, Moynihan blander-than-bland and Holm criminally cut short of screentime.
Pic looks and feels authentically international, with lenser Amir Mokri finding distinct imagery to match Gotham, Czech and South African settings. Song selection, like much of the humor, is a bit too smarty-pants for the film’s own good.