A Call to Arms

Nicolas Cage is on target as a remorseless weapons dealer in the chilling, if preachy, 'Lord of War.'


September 16, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Lord of War envisions itself as GoodFellas for the gun-running trade, but doesn't display the texture or virtuosity necessary to pull it off. Still, a bravura, resonant performance by Nicolas Cage, combined with some hard questions raised about American responsibility for the worldwide glut of firearms, make the film close to a must-see, if not a must-love.

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a second-generation Ukrainian-American who's discovered an unfortunate path to the American dream. He sells guns, to anyone and everyone, beginning with street thugs in the United States, and eventually to megalomanical African dictators (including a terrifying Eamonn Walker as Liberian warlord Andre Baptiste), religious extremists on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East and drug smugglers of every type. Proudly amoral, Yuri cares only about where his next dollar is coming from, and not one whit about who died to ensure it got to him.

Narrated by Yuri, Lord of War opens with its protagonist at something of a crossroads, offering the story of his rise and fall by way of explaining how he got here. Having long abandoned any notion of the difference between right and wrong, Yuri is dedicated to one simple goal: getting ahead. If that means hanging out with shady characters, so be it - as long as their money's good. If that means moving the world a step or two closer to Armageddon, why should a businessman care what a buyer does once the deal is closed.

"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation," Yuri says at one point. "That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?"

As one might suspect, there's little subtlety in Lord of War - beginning with its opening sequence, which follows a single bullet from its creation to its ultimate destination, the inside of some poor kid's head. Had the film continued to mine that level of inventiveness, it would have been something special. But save for a few isolated sequences, the movie settles for convention whenever possible.

The characters are determinedly one-dimensional. That works for Yuri, who sees his shallowness as a virtue; writer-director Andrew Niccol never allows him to become repentant, a brave decision that makes the character even more chilling.

Lord of War offers a nightmare vision of a world where supplying the means for killing has devolved into a big business, and Cage's performance - his best since Adaptation - suggests a villainy all the more terrifying because of how casually it's accepted by everyone around him.

But for the supporting characters, a little shading would have helped immeasurably, if only to make the film less of a screed and more of a drama. Little brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) exists only to become a drug addict and continually test everyone's patience. Yuri's trophy wife, Ava (Bridget Moynahan), is there simply to be attractive; otherwise, she's largely ignored. Ava, in fact, represents the film's biggest failure. She's meant to be a spoiled rich kid, whose profligate tastes are used to justify at least some of Yuri's excesses.

But Moynahan brings no depth whatsoever to the role, and Niccol's script doesn't force any on her. She's pretty, but eschews any other emotion ... until a final flare-up near the end, when her suspicions about Yuri's lifestyle prove tragically on point. Comparing Moynahan's character to the similar function played by Lorraine Bracco's in GoodFellas highlights the laziness of Niccol's script, which is content to be merely shocking when it should, instead, be illuminating.

Lord of War

Starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan

Directed by Andrew Niccol

Released by Lions Gate Films

Rated R (strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality)

Time 122 minutes

Sun Score *** (three stars)

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