Lord Of War Review
Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) arrives in the United States as a child when his parents emigrate from the Ukraine, taking him and his baby brother Vitaly (Jared Leto). The Orlov boys grow up in a tough New York neighbourhood, working hard in the family diner. Vitaly wants to work there as a chef but Yuri has bigger dreams. One day he witnesses a gunfight and, as he stares at the spent bullet cases littering the ground, he realises that in this world people will always want to kill each other and so there will always be a market for weapons and ammunition. Yuri sells his first gun, an Uzi, to a local mobster while he's still in his teens.
That was back in the early eighties. Flash forward to the early nineties and Yuri's moved up in the world. He's an international arms dealer now, buying military hardware cheap from the bankrupt states of the former Soviet Union and selling them to customers who can't obtain weapons easily through legal channels, be they dictators, guerrillas or terrorists. At his side - when he's not in rehab for his cocaine addiction - is his brother Vitaly and back home in his Park Avenue apartment is his trophy wife, a former model named Ava (Bridget Moynahan) who doesn't know how her husband earns his money and doesn't ask.
Of course arms dealing is a dangerous business. It involves working with people you'd normally avoid at all costs, people like Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker), the brutal dictator of Liberia, and his psychotic son Andre Jr (Sammi Rotibi), who's rumoured to be a cannibal. The illegal nature of the trade brings you to the attention of law enforcement officers such as Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who makes it his mission to bring Yuri to justice. Then there's always the possibility that one of the guns you sell might one day be turned on you or someone you love.
I'll be straight with you, I don't know a lot of international arms dealers but still I feel secure in my belief that Yuri Orlov, the antihero of Lord Of War, is nothing like any arms dealer on the planet. As created by writer-director Andrew Niccol and played by Nicolas Cage, Yuri is a likeable rogue whose cynicism and amorality are offset by his self-doubt, his sense of humour and his love for his family. He's a sympathetic guy, made all the more so by Cage's considerable charm. Yet if you look at what he says and does, this character is a sociopath. Only a sociopath could shrug off the fact that he gets rich from selling weapons to mass murderers with the kind of glib rationalisations Yuri uses: "If I wasn't doing it, someone else would be." The kind of man who might actually say that or claim he never sold to Osama bin Laden "but only because he was always bouncing cheques" is a long way from the good-guy-gone-wrong as portrayed here by Nicolas Cage.
I'm not saying Yuri should be portrayed simplistically as a villain - arms dealers are as human as you and I - but to write him credibly, you have to take into account the kind of personality required to do the job he does. I had the same problem with Blow, with its nice cocaine importer played by Johnny Depp. Nice people don't have what it takes to succeed as drug czars and gun runners. Nice people don't go into those professions in the first place. Lord Of War is a film crying out for the moral complexity of The Sopranos, in which James Gandolfini is perfectly believable as both a loving family man and a Mafia killer. The writers don't demonise him but nor do they have any illusions about what he is. Andrew Niccol either can't supply the same level of complexity or, more likely, he's unwilling to go that dark. He doesn't want to scare off the audience by giving us a lead character we can't like.
At least Yuri is three-dimensional. The supporting parts are there purely at the service of the plot. Vitaly and Ava are there to take turns as Yuri's conscience and to demonstrate the consequences of his career choice on the ones he loves. Agent Valentine is there to make angry speeches on behalf of the writer (and presumably us). The two Andres are there to symbolise the evil that Yuri aids and abets.
Everything these characters do and just about everything that happens in the movie illustrates the message that Andrew Niccol keeps drumming into us: that selling arms to Third World madmen is a bad thing. I would have thought that was a fairly obvious point that didn't even need making but Niccol keeps repeating it over and over, just in case we haven't gotten it yet. This is heavy-handed stuff, self-defeatingly so in my opinion. Lord Of War may be the first major Hollywood production that shows the influence of Michael Moore, whose blockbusting Fahrenheit 9/11 proved there's a market for propaganda. Lord Of War is propaganda, the overbearing kind that doesn't trust you to pick up on a message unless its screamed into your face with a loudhailer. Andrew Niccol's passion is commendable. His lack of respect for his audience is not.
After a while - Lord Of War goes on for a lengthy two hours - I wanted to argue back. Of course selling guns to tyrants like Andre Baptiste is wrong but what about selling them to a resistance movement that was fighting Baptiste? Is it selling guns that's wrong or being careless about who you sell them to? For a while, it looks like Niccol might be prepared to entertain such a debate. He introduces a rival arms dealer called Simeon (Ian Holm), who is affiliated with the CIA and sells his arms only to those fighting for causes he believes in, as opposed to Yuri who will happily supply both sides of the same conflict. Unfortunately this issue is never developed, Simeon remains a minor character and Niccol keeps his arguments frustratingly black and white. Guns are bad, mmmkay?
The arms trade is a worthy subject for a movie. I'd love to see a cynical, hard-hitting drama about the same subject from a smarter filmmaker like Oliver Stone with James Woods playing the Nicolas Cage role and playing it without any attempt to be sympathetic. Such a film would trust us to make our own moral judgements. It would have a semi-documentary, "insider" feel and it would convince us we were seeing the business as it really is.
Lord Of War never gives the impression of knowing much about real arms dealing. There's no information here you don't already know or couldn't guess. Topicality is provided by namedropping, the bin Laden crack for example. There are some thudding attempts at satire - a shady general is called Oliver Southern. The general tone is cartoonish, more Get Shorty than Goodfellas. Niccol does get points for having had the ambition to tackle the subject in the first place but I'm reviewing the finished film, not his ambitions and Lord Of War can only be described as an enormous disappointment.