Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto in Lions Gate Films' Lord of War - 2005
Last week I reviewed Junebug, an independent film as evidenced by it’s relatively unknown cast and dramatic interpersonal storyline. This week we’ll look at another indie film, but one of a different sort. Lord of War does not, at first glance, seem to be typical indie fare - big stars (Nicholas Cage and Ethan Hawk) and bigger explosions don’t fit with the typical quiet introspection usually found at your local art theatre. No, War is independent, I suspect, not because of a lack of mass market appeal, but because of its politics. Fervently anti-gun, the film features a bleak storyline, a major anti-hero, and no easy answers. Perhaps it was just a little too hot to handle.
In the end, Lion’s Gate Films, in conjunction with a slew of smaller firms you’ve never heard of, joined to produce and release the film, which is fortunate, not because it’s a great movie, but because it’s a story that needs to be told. Cage’s Yuri Orlov is a young man adrift in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa. When his family immigrated from the Ukraine in the 70’s, Orlov was just a boy. Now, fully assimilated into his new country, our hero is ready to embrace capitalism in a big way. After witnessing the near execution of a Russian mobster, Orlov realizes that real money, and security, lies in being the man who supplies weapons to those who would use them. With the help of his brother, played in full screw-up mode by Jared Leto, Orlov quickly makes a name for himself in the arms distribution world. With the slick patter of a used car salesman, he navigates the dicey waters of armed conflict after armed conflict, never taking sides, always making money. He justifies his work to himself by comparing his work to that of other salesmen, some of whose products also kill if used improperly. “It’s none of my business” becomes his mantra, and every time he says it, he slides further from humanity. Eventually his dealings gain him wealth, a beautiful but oblivious wife, and the notice of Interpol, in the form of agent Jack Valentine, who pursues Orlov across the globe. However, due to his mastery of what he refers to as “gray” deals, our hero is always able to slip through myriad loopholes in international regulations, avoiding arrest at every turn. It is only when Orlov’s brother, his conscience, begins to crack, that his tightly wound world begins to unravel.
To describe Lord of War as heavy-handed would be like describing Kill Bill as “a little violent.” In an unsympathetic voice-over, Cage describes the life of a gunrunner in fairly straightforward terms, but the accompanying images, those of children being executed, rampant and wanton murder, and crate after crate of gleaming death speak far louder. I felt, throughout the film, like I was being preached to, and on the one hand I was irritated. I don’t go to the movies to be made to feel guilty - if I wanted that I could go rent Pay it Forward. But on the other hand, this is a story that needs to be told. It’s not as if, prior to this viewing, I would have spoken warmly about those friendly arms dealers, but it’s not a subject that many people really think about. The sheer numbers of guns that are delivered to unstable areas of the globe is staggering, and the fact that people, and our own government, in fact, make good money off the suffering that those small arms cause, is a sobering thought. Ethan Hawke sums up the theme of the movie when he states that “Nuclear missiles sit in their silos. The AK-47 is the true weapon of mass destruction.”
Lord of War is not just heavy handed. There are funny parts and exciting parts as well. Director Andrew Niccol has succeeded in making this highly depressing tale at least marginally entertaining. Cage does a good job of slipping from a pretty normal guy, through justification after justification, into the devil himself, and relative unknown Eamonn Walker is chilling as the vicious and cruel dictator André Baptiste. But Niccol, perhaps in an effort to hurry into the actual meat of the movie, skimps on the particulars of how Orlov actually got into the business, an omission that wouldn’t bother me so much if the movie weren’t set up as The Rise and Fall of a Gun Runner. It seems unlikely that a man with no prior knowledge of guns or real contacts in the business, could set himself up the world’s preeminent arms dealer through force of will alone. One thing I was very impressed with, on the other hand, is the film’s poster. As a graphic artist myself, I was blown-away, if you’ll pardon the pun, by the creation of Cage’s portrait made entirely from different calibers of bullets. Very appropriate and, though this can’t be said for the rest of the film, actually kind of subtle. Grade: B+
Lord of War is rated R for graphic violence, language, brief nudity, and sexual content.
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