by David Cornelius
Some people go into the restaurant business because people will always have to eat. For similar reasons, Yuri Orlav went into the gun business.Andrew Niccol’s brilliant “Lord of War” finds Nicolas Cage playing the underground arms dealer, and if Cage as someone named Yuri Orlav (and Jared Leto as his brother, Vitaly) seems like a stretch, consider the character’s origins: his family left the Ukraine and came to America, making up new names and claiming to be Jewish, to make the immigration easier. It is only the first of a lifetime of lies for this man, and so perhaps it’s only appropriate that Niccol lie to us with his casting.
"Disturbingly on target."
Niccol, you may remember, is the writer/director of the inspired sci-fi thriller “Gattaca” and the uninspired hi-tech comedy “Simone,” as well as the writer of “The Truman Show.” These are films with a ruthless bite (even “Simone,” in its own shaky way), but his “Lord of War” has perhaps the sharpest teeth yet. Gone is any attempt at allegory, replaced with a single, brutally angry shot.
It’s an anger expressed right up front: as the opening credits unspool, we follow the bullet’s journey, watching its manufacture, shipment, and its ultimate destination, a soldier’s skull. Buffalo Springfield on the soundtrack only underlines the point - something is seriously wrong with a culture that mass produces an object whose sole purpose is to destroy.
That said, Niccol saves his most obvious statements for the film’s beginning and ending, leaving the rest to play out in a far less preachy manner. He patterns his story after the rise-and-fall-of-the-gangster formula. We’re seduced by how well Yuri is at what he does, we marvel at how he sticks it to the establishment, we thrill at his devil-may-care attitude, we envy his lifestyle of globetrotting, adventure, and big, big money. But, ultimately, we understand that Yuri is the bad guy here, and we begin to root for - well, not his downfall, because we have grown to like him so much. We’re wanting that epiphany, where he realizes the evil of his deeds and turns a new leaf. I’m reminded of James Cagney, whose gangster films lived in the same grey areas as “Lord of War.”
Yuri’s journey takes him - and us - to the darkest corners of the globe. After watching him lie his way into marriage, use the fall of the Soviet Union to play into the biggest arms boom of his life, and challenge the world’s best gun runner (Ian Holm) to the title, the story eventually focuses on Liberia, where self-appointed president Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) is terrorizing the nation. It’s here where the coolness factor of Yuri’s job explodes in his face. Before, most of the bloodshed happened somewhere else; now, Yuri is confronted with it in its ugliest forms, and the imagery is inescapable.
It’s the introduction of Baptiste that gets us understanding that we need to see Yuri in a bad light. The fun and games of Yuri’s ingenious swindles now come with a sinister side. Once you see a child asking if her arm will ever grow back, later scenes such as the one in which Yuri cleverly disposes of a planeload of weapons become far more haunting than amusing - after all, where will all those guns go, except in the hands of people wanting to shoot each other?
There is, amid the violence and the social commentary, another level to the film: a study of addiction. Vitaly is the obvious choice here, as his character quickly snags a nasty cocaine habit and spends the next handful of years in and out of rehab. But Yuri is arguably an even bigger addict, hooked on the thrill of the sell, unable to see the horrors he’s causing , unable to tear himself away from his underworld. (You can even argue that Yuri’s wife becomes addicted to her penthouse lifestyle, as she’s quick to turn a blind eye to Yuri’s profession, knowing that if she finds out what he does for a living, she might have to give up her riches. I’m not sure this argument holds up throughout the film, however, but it’s still worth mentioning as being part of an overall theme.)
The richness of Niccol’s writing (both in genius of storytelling and crispness of dialogue - Niccol’s ear for wordplay is something to behold) is matched note for note by Cage’s exuberant performance. Cage is Cage here, providing that familiar crazy rock star vibe that makes audiences dig him or hate him. But it’s a vibe that’s perfectly in tune with the character, and I can’t imagine anyone else being as effective in the role. Cage’s sly humor draws us in to the character, while his playfulness with that aforementioned grey area allows us to like and loathe the Yuri character, often at the same time. Cage shows us the tragedy of the character without overstepping his bounds. It’s a delicate, masterful performance.There is a pessimism to “Lord of War” that may put off some viewers. This is, after all, one pissed off movie, one that dares have its main character tell us, “They say evil prevails when good men fail to act. What they should say is: evil prevails.” This is the sort of savage thinking that abounds here. But it’s savage thinking that’s well earned, anger well aimed. This is a film bold enough to point to the human race and say, “we are failing.” And yet it does so in the form of a thrilling, satirical character piece. This is Niccol’s bravest movie to date, and it is an unquestionably brilliant work.
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originally posted: 09/20/05 14:36:13