Lord of War (2-Disc Limited Edition) Review
To Yuri Orlov there are rules in arms dealing, as much a way to resolve his own conscience as to stay doing business and to stay alive. Three of them seem to be particularly pertinent...
Never get shot with your own merchandise...although this rule does let him down when an arms deal in Colombia goes wrong and Yuri, rather than being offered the cash that he'd hope for, is handed bricks of cocaine. A disagreement turns into a Mexican standoff and Yuri, waving his hands about, ironically in the manner of a peacemaker, takes a bullet in the side. Otherwise, Yuri remembers to keep the bullets and the weaponry apart until the deal is signed. If nothing else, a used gun doesn't have quite the same value as a brand new one.
Always have a fool proof way to get paid...In these sensitive times, some things remain off limits. As Yuri jokes that he never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden, his voice suggests a knowing wink. As though, were this film released during the time of George Bush Snr., the nascent Al Qaeda, then simply referred to as the Mujahidin, who were then embroiled in the resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan, would not have been a problem. But Yuri jokes that Bin Laden's cheques always bounced - an odd thing given how well funded by the CIA he was - and gives himself an excuse to not have his hands bloodied. His offshore account is, however, another matter and the cash and blood diamonds that remain his preferred method of payment are, one fall of the Soviet empire later, soon rolling in, often in such quantities that Yuri has trouble spending it all.
Never go to war...especially with yourself...and therein lies the rub.
With much of the world in a state of conflict, there remains the possibility that one of them will spark the making of an impassioned film. Having already seen the Balkans as the stage for a series of films examining the roots and impact of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and, more recently, the genocide in Rwanda, there's no shortage of warzones to act as backdrops to the human drama of finding hope and a way of staying alive as thousands more end up in mass graves. But both the major and independent film studios know to keep these moments small, not out of any embarrassment over the subject matter but out of an awareness over the financial risk involved in making them. Battered by the news headlines of genocide, of rape as a weapon and of the killing of helpless children by armies of rebels and government troops little older, the public tends to look past films such as these, preferring more light-hearted fare. Regardless of the presence of a Hollywood star, so too do the multiplexes.
Despite being one of the best films last year, The Constant Gardener, an impassioned film about the exploitation of the African poor by major pharmaceuticals, left one feeling largely impotent, not to mention an anger with multinational corporations. Few are those who would have left a screening of The Constant Gardener without wanting to do something. But, as I noted in my review of the film, doing something requires much effort, even more so when there's an awareness that we, or our loved ones, will one day depend upon these same pharmaceutical companies for our lives. Are we content to let the children of shanty towns suffer in order that ours do not? In time, the anger that The Constant Gardener instills in us is eventually replaced by guilt, which, as we well know, somehow evaporates within the mind.
Lord of War doesn't appear to have any such interest in making grandstanding gestures towards international arms dealing aside from the occasional, and very brief, comment. As played by Nicolas Cage, Yuri Orlov is a glib, quick-witted and likeable businessman, who wears a suit, woos and is then faithful to his wife and has a keen eye for spotting opportunities. As a Ukranian whose parents emigrated to the US after the war, he's grown up around violence and though he admits it either occurred five minutes before or after he arrived somewhere, it was never far away. Not a criminal, Orlov simply has an epiphany as he's a witness to a gangland shooting and gets out of the restaurant business in favour of selling guns. A friend of his father leads him to a pair of Uzis whilst the buying and selling of small arms in New Jersey, not to mention US-made M-16s in the Lebanon, keeps business ticking over. But Yuri has ambition and when the Soviet Union collapses, Yuri calls in a favour from an uncle who had remained in Ukraine and who is now, or was, a general in the Red Army. Offering him a part in his business, Yuri buys Dimitri's tanks and AK-47s to expand his inventory and soon, with the help of various warring African nations, Yuri's business is booming, which attracts the attentions of Valentine (Ethan Hawke), an incorruptible Interpol agent.
What this success also bags him is a beautiful wife, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) and a healthy son, both of whom are unaware of Yuri's life as an arms dealer. Claiming that he's something in transportation - a necessary cover for the frequent trips abroad - Ava is as much a trophy wife as Yuri needs to portray his place in American society but this compartmentalising of his life leads to the only conflict in the film, not those of Africa but how a major arms dealer enjoys the trappings of wealth in New York whilst his guns are in the hands of the militia in Liberia.
Director Andrew Niccol works this aspect of the story more than he ought to but uses it to avoid mention of the civil war in Liberia, which few will be familiar with. During the good times, Yuri is a good man, clever, charming, married to a beautiful woman and a caring father to a young boy. When his son plays with a toy gun, Yuri throws it out later that night when his son is sleeping. And when Andre Baptiste, president of Liberia and a character based on Charles Taylor, offers him the services of two prostitutes for his efforts in securing arms, Yuri, as all good husbands should, turns them away. In contrast to the sneaky, arrogant and underhanded dealings of Simeon Weisz, Yuri Orlov could hardly be any more upstanding.
But then things begin to go wrong. Not necessarily in Yuri's business dealings but in his personal life. Baptiste visits Yuri at his hotel and offers him a gun with which to kill the imprisoned Weisz. Having got his brother into rehab for a cocaine addiction, Yuri takes to snorting brown-brown in Liberia - a mix of cocaine and gunpowder - and has sex with a prostitute who will, more than likely, be infected with HIV. Back at home, as Valentine closes in, the pigeons, to use a colloquialism, come home to roost. Time then for a lesson, one might think, for Yuri.
Not quite. As the film ends, Andrew Niccol excuses Yuri Orlov and we leave content that regardless of what we've seen that it is not he who's the villain of the film. As he makes clear to Valentine, his boss, the President of the United States, exports in a day what it takes Yuri a year to. We ought to be shocked but Yuri, thought to be based on Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer (he supplied guns to Charles Taylor) and former KGB officer, is too attractive a character to be a villain, far too funny and likeable to feel anger at him. When he evades arrest by Valentine by repainting the name of his boat in the waters, it's an escape beloved of the movies. And when he watch him give away a planeload of weapons, then see it stripped to its basics, we laugh and actually feel sorry for Yuri. What we never do is dislike him or wish for him to be captured. Niccol, whether it was his intention or not, actually presents Valentine as more of a villain than Yuri.
The film ends with an note saying that, "The world's leading arms suppliers are the U.S., UK, Russia, France and China." It then also reminds us that these five countries are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Then we, at least those of us who reside in any one of those five countries, are reminded that it is us and the politicians we elect who are the real villains and that we're somehow complicit in their support of the arms trade. Having had the finger we were pointing at Yuri Orlov turned back at us, Niccol would clearly like his audience to feel uncomfortable, angry even, but too in awe of his hero, the director is slow to recognise the faults in Yuri Orlov.
Unlike the Region 1, this release of the film comes in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and although my colleague Rik Booth compared one to the other and found nothing of consequence having been removed through the matting process, you do at least have a sense of completeness with his release. Otherwise Lord of War looks as you might expect it to, with a reasonably sharp picture, bright colours and only a small amount of digital noise in the image. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is good, with obvious use of the surround channels, for ambient effects mostly, and with everything sounding clear and well-balanced in the mix. Finally, there are English SDH subtitles.
Commentary: Speaking quietly, unafraid to leave spaces in his commentary and without much emotion, Andrew Niccol has recorded a so-so track but which is also one without either frills or thrills. That wouldn't actually be so bad were it interesting but it's often quite dull with Niccol talking about even the most exciting of scenes in a very matter-of-fact manner, revealing little of what happened behind the scenes. Getting through this once was something of a chore so it's unlikely anyone will be paying this a repeat visit.
Making of Lord of War (20m28s): Featuring a voiceover from Andrew Niccol over footage from the film, as well as from behind-the-scenes, this begins with the director's realisation that for the scene in which Yuri Orlov walks through a warehouse full of Kalashnikovs, it was easier and cheaper to buy 3,000 real weapons than fake ones. Saying that life reflected art in Niccol's dependence on real arms dealers for props, vehicles, weapons and a plane, this sees the director eventually drift out of the documentary in favour of the crew and cast.
Making a Killing (15m14s): Subtitled Inside the International Arms Trade, this opens with William Shulz of Amnesty International before going on to feature interviews with many of those working against the spread of arms throughout the world. Illustrated by black-and-white clips from the film, which serve to connect Lord of War with actual events, this is a more effective lesson in the history of arms trading than the actual film, revealing how the rebels in Liberia were able to oust the president Charles Taylor by shipping in arms through a private arms dealer after government forces had run out of ammunition. Interestingly, though, this feature, short though it is, adds some background to the condemnation of arms manufacturers by inviting one to contribute. Looking a little more manic than the others, Dr Craig Swinson of CQB Arms says, "If you want to stop a war, you stop buying your big SUVs, stop filling them full of gas and driving them around. If nobody valued diamonds and gas wasn't that important to us...would you see the hyper-arming of the Middle East?"
Deleted Scenes (9m06s): In non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and complete with a timecode below the action, these ten scenes don't add very much to the film and certainly nothing of the gunrunning though much more of the relationship between Yuri and Ava.
Interviews: Subtitled An Inside View... (15m18s), producers Norman Golightly and Philippe Rousselet as well as stars Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke and Bridget Moynahan are interviewed here and via a series of title cards, talk about the arms trade, writer/director Andrew Niccol and the actual shooting of the film in South Africa. Mostly they're interviewed separately - Golightly and Cage are the only ones who are together - this goes over the same material from various points of view. Next, there is a press interview with Nicolas Cage (7m42s) in which, sporting a full moustache, he covers much of the same ground as he does elsewhere in the set.
Finally, there's a Theatrical Trailer (1m43s). None of these features are subtitled.
In his commentary, Andrew Niccol talks about the Uzi being his favourite weapon featured in the film and this reveals the problem with Lord of War. The opening credits reveal this further - the journey of a round of ammunition from its production in Ukraine to its final resting place within the head of a young African boy is an impressive one but also it shows Niccol's fetishistic attraction to the military hardware. In one respect it's difficult to blame him, after all who hasn't grown up shooting guns in playground games but in another, he's making a film warning of the spread of small arms but has, in turn, fallen for them without hesitation. Were this a light-hearted comedy, one couldn't fault Niccol but in attempting to make a serious point, he's strayed far off target. Lord of War looks good and Nicolas Cage has plenty to riff on but it's far from being the well-intentioned piece of filmmaking of The Constant Gardener and all the worse for it.