Andrew Niccol’s new film is as glossily crafted as “Gattaca” and “Simone,” and with its sleek surface and bold, confident craftsmanship it’s remarkably engaging from the purely visual standpoint. But despite the virtuosity on display, “Lord of War” is a problematical piece. For one thing, it’s narrated virtually straight through–an increasingly commonplace affliction in contemporary films, and an exhausting one for both script-reader and viewer. But more importantly, the picture has what amounts to an identity crisis. On the one hand, it aims to be a genuine cautionary tale about a significant problem in today’s world–the black-market trade in weaponry. But on the other its attitude is smugly flip and cynical, undermining the intended message. While the combination is a troublesome one, however, happily Niccol’s showmanship is such that though its schizophrenic quality will gnaw at you while you’re watching, you’ll probably still find yourself having a pretty good time anyway
The narrative is basically a variation of the old “Scarface” formula, this time showing the ascent of a fellow in a criminal enterprise–this time gun-running rather than bootlegging or drug-trading. The anti-hero is Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a Ukranian-American whose immigrant parents run a restaurant in Little Odessa. As Yuri explains in his often-humorous narration (Niccol is adept at adding touches such as the elder Orlov’s incongruous embrace of Judaism), he was never excited about following in his father’s food-service footsteps, and so when he realized its potential, he entered gingerly into illegal gun sales and found not only that he was really good at it, but also that it paid extraordinarily well. He draws his loyal but volatile younger brother Vitali (Jared Leto) into the business as well. And though his naive attempt to work his way into a partnership with the worlds’s chief weapons dealer, Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), is contemptuously dismissed, his contacts in Ukraine–an uncle of his is the commanding general at a huge storage facility there –give him the opportunity to become a major player in the trade after the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R., and he happily seizes it. From this point his business expands exponentially, and before long he’s supplying throughout Africa, especially to the brutal dictator General Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his maniacal son (Sammi Rotibi) in Liberia. He also acquires a gorgeous wife, supermodel Eva (Bridget Moynahan), whom–in the tradition of stories like this–he keeps in the dark about his nefarious dealings. But all is definitely not well. Drug use endangers the operation, and a committed–and utterly incorruptible–Interpol agent named Valentine (Ethan Hawke) gets on his tail and won’t let up.
Thanks to Niccol’s frequently clever writing and Cage’s smoothly amoral delivery, as well as the virtuoso camerawork of Amir Mokri and Zach Staenberg’s fleet editing, much of this goes down wonderfully well. True, there’s a glibness to the treatment that smacks more of sophomoric black comedy than sharp satire (this is no “Dr. Strangelove”), but the cinematic verve is hard to resist. But it must be admitted that Cage is virtually the whole show. In the sequences with Walker and Rotibi he gets to go head-to-head with comparable scene-stealers, but elsewhere the competition is surprisingly weak. Holm brings a quiet authority to his few on-screen moments but not much more, and Hawke, with similarly short time allotted him, proves a gratingly one-note presence. Leto has a greater opportunity to shine, but his character quickly descends into a predictable downward spiral, and Moynahan, while certainly statuesque, is bland as the beautiful but rather dense spouse. (One of the least plausible moments in a script that’s not exactly short of them comes when she takes her young son along as she investigates her husband’s potentially dangerous doings.) It also doesn’t help that you’re likely to perceive as soon as one of the characters appears that he ought to be wearing a sign that reads “Dead Meat.” Or that when the end rolls around, Niccol finds it necessary to add a twist that’s as bleakly cynical as anything you’ll find in a Billy Wilder movie.
But despite all the flaws the picture’s eyecatching craft and Cage’s cunningly engaging persona carry the day. Despite its serious subject, “Lord of War” is as much an act of hucksterism as Yuri Orlov’s business is, but it too makes the sale.