Neither the location-based verisimilitude of Ridley Scott’s shooting style nor the estimable Middle East expertise of source-material author David Ignatius can disguise “Body of Lies” as anything other than the contrived phony-baloney it is. Coming on like an inside account of CIA operations against jihad-minded terrorists, pic shows its true colors by featuring a shootout, chase or big explosion every 10 minutes or so, on its way to a climax so conventional it would have been at home in a 1940s Warner Bros. melodrama. Despite the Iraq War hovering in the background, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe leading the charge in a high-octane would-be thriller should produce solid mainstream B.O. worldwide.
Due to Scott’s clear interest in West vs. Arab conflict, explored in both “Black Hawk Down” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” novelist and journalist Ignatius’ intimate knowledge of the scene and scenarist William Monahan’s proven skill with complicated narratives and pungent dialogue, there was reason here to hope for something more than an updated companion piece to Ridley’s brother Tony’s 2001 espionage meller “Spy Game.”
The setup certainly has merit. A dedicated Arabist and fluent in the language, rough-and-tumble CIA op Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) works the treacherous streets of the Middle East, be it in Iraq, Jordan or Syria, trying to recruit help, infiltrate cells and uncover plots against steep odds. His boss back in Langley, Ed Hoffman (Crowe), is a blunt realist who admits that a democracy is “an easy target” and that it wouldn’t be all that hard to bring Western civilization down.
Better yet, the story hinges on an ingenious plot hatched by Ferris to flush out a shadowy master terrorist who’s embarked upon a series of devastating bombings against civilian targets but never steps forward to take credit: Ferris creates an entirely fictitious rival terror organization whose atrocities and unknown leader are designed to force the real perpetrator far enough into the open for apprehension.
Sounds like a can’t-miss premise. But Scott and Monahan, who teamed on “Kingdom of Heaven,” take a mostly formulaic approach that becomes more disappointing as the yarn unwinds, right up to the cornball denouement that is everything that even some internal dialogue had promised it wouldn’t be.
Working in similar rugged-modern-adventurer mode as he did in “Blood Diamond,” DiCaprio frequently gets roughed up and bloodied, to the point where his character even seems to like it. As he tries to ferret out a potential informant in the Iraqi desert or to run surveillance on a terrorist safe house in Amman, Ferris is observed by Hoffman via crisp overhead images provided by high-flying drones. Given the technology at hand, it seems surprising the CIA doesn’t enjoy a higher success rate than it appears to.
But as Hoffman himself best articulates, terrorists can flourish by going no-tech, relying on quiet person-to-person communications. This is where Ferris proves invaluable, at least to the extent that Hoffman permits him to function on his own terms.
Conflict between Ferris’ micro approach and Hoffman’s concern for the macro surfaces in their respective dealings with Jordanian intelligence chief Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). An urbane and elegant sophisticate, Hani chafes at Hoffman’s crudeness but quickly recognizes Ferris’ smarts and agrees to cooperate with his efforts to nail Islamist mastermind Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). Scenes between Ferris and Hani possess a heightened vibrance stemming from two sharp, skillful men recognizing their respective qualities and working out a mutually beneficial modus operandi.
At one point some nasty wounds land Ferris in the hospital, where he is ministered to by lovely nurse Aisha (Iranian thesp Golshifteh Farahani). Pic is attentive to the extreme cultural difficulties of even the most modest social exchanges between an American man and a Muslim woman under such circumstances; men glare at them when they share tea at a public cafe, and Aisha’s conservative sister (Lubna Azabal) gives Ferris an earful when he comes for lunch.
Despite the sociopolitical points of interest and even insight, however, the scenario begins to feel contorted and ultimately poisoned by its adherence to movie conceits rather than real-world terms; the film capitulates to what it’s thought audiences want from Hollywood action cinema, rather than going its own original way with material that could have been far more absorbing and provocative. No matter how credible and realistic the urban and countryside scenes may look (many Morocco locations doubled for the numerous Middle Eastern locales represented), what takes place in them comes off as increasingly hokey and concocted. In the end, “Body of Lies” infuses the thriller format with hot modern issues less successfully than did last year’s “The Kingdom.”
DiCaprio throws himself into the middle of dangerous doings much as he did in “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed,” that is to say with grit, determination and an underlying need to prove something. Strong makes a marked impression as the cultivated Jordanian spy boss, Farahani brings spirit to a standard role and Simon McBurney adds another eccentric to his resume as a nerdy computer genius.
And then there’s Russell Crowe. Asked by Scott to put on 50 pounds for the role of the Cofer Black-like CIA figure, the actor has clearly obliged, to the point where he now looks like a candidate to succeed the late, great JT Walsh as a specialist in beefy, menacing supporting characters. Sporting cropped salt-and-pepper hair and an Arkansas accent, Crowe literally phones this one in — as perhaps half his performance is spent speaking by cell phone to DiCaprio overseas; the other half has him peering over reading glasses to make his point. It would be nice to see this great actor toughen up again and take on some more challenging roles.
Tech qualities are on a par with Scott’s usual high standards, with the director’s longtime camera operator-second unit director and cameraman Alexander Witt making his debut as a full d.p.