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Lord of War
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by Robert Flaxman

"Ironically, it lacks ammunition."
2 stars

There’s something faintly disingenuous about a political film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Lord of War is certainly a political film – it practically falls all over itself trying to hit every point on its agenda, but those points encompass both sides of the argument and then some. There’s far too much going on in the film and yet somehow not enough, a dangerous combination.

Best known for futuristic think-pieces like The Truman Show, Gattaca, and S1m0ne, writer/director Andrew Niccol goes back in time for Lord of War, opening his story in the early 1980s. Nicolas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian immigrant who goes into gun-running as a way to make money and finds out that he has an aptitude for it. Initially he works with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), but goes it alone after Vitaly develops a cocaine habit. Eventually Yuri sells guns on every continent to as many different factions as can afford his services.

There’s nothing noble about Yuri’s profession, and the film doesn’t pretend there is. But if Yuri isn’t the hero of the piece, he’s hardly the villain either. Yuri describes his role in the world as a “necessary evil,” and if Niccol disagrees he isn’t very vocal about it. Indeed, if Lord of War comes down hard on anyone, it’s on governments. The film concludes with a graphic stating that the five biggest arms dealers in the world are the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, which, it darkly adds, are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The irony is certainly not intended to be lost on anyone.

Perhaps it would have been better for the subject if the film had been made as a documentary, because Niccol wins no points by attempting to create sympathy for Yuri. It’s not that he’s necessarily a sympathetic character, but the audience is certainly asked to feel for him at some of his lower points, which seems counterintuitive – or at least it does until we realize that Niccol doesn’t seem sure whether he’s vehemently opposed to arms dealing or quietly accepting of it.

The film opens with a sequence tracking a bullet from its initial production to its final resting place in the skull of an African villager. Even without any context, it’s a fairly powerful sequence, but the rest of the film, with only a couple of exceptions, is mostly scrubbed of such imagery. When Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) rants to Yuri about the latter’s victims, one has to stop and wonder how many of those we’ve actually seen. Lord of War is by no means bloodless, but for a film that supposedly takes a stance against the international arms trade, it focuses a surprisingly large amount on the traders and a correspondingly small amount on the victims.

Considering that, you’d think the characters would be fleshed out more, but they aren’t. Yuri at least verges on three dimensions; the rest of the cast is lucky if they can get to two. Hawke’s Valentine is a poor man’s Javert; Yuri’s wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan) is little more than a walking plot point. The highly-billed Ian Holm only has three scenes as a rival arms dealer, and Leto’s Vitaly is little more than an overly self-conscious foil to his brother.

The shallow characters are as much a result of the film’s pacing as anything else, though, and it is the pacing which ultimately provides the largest piece of Lord of War’s downfall. The film is choked with narration – Cage evidently learned nothing from Robert McKee’s advice in Adaptation – and feels intensely choppy as a result, almost as though it was a three-hour film cut down to two by replacing actual scenes with more of Yuri’s expository narration. Voice-overs aren’t inherently bad, but it becomes a problem when a film has no other way to get its point across. It would be one thing if this were a documentary, but it isn’t. All the narration does is rob the film of a natural flow; instead it jumps from one place to the next, like we’re watching Cage’s vacation slides.

There’s no shortage of ideas behind Lord of War, but it doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be. Is it a political film or a character study? How does it feel about its main character? Is arms dealing reprehensible or unavoidable? None of these questions are easily answered, and when Yuri muses about the euphemistic names of oppressive regimes (“Liberation this, Patriotic that, Democratic Republic of something-or-other”), it rings more than a little hollow when he’s selling them guns in the next scene. Lord of War ends up playing like a political film that’s too worried about seeming political to really have teeth, and winking references to the 2000 election and 9/11 come across more as pandering than anything else.

Niccol’s past work has included intelligent examinations of sociopolitical issues, but he comes across as out of his depth with Lord of War. Maybe the subject is too big or just not speculative enough, but it never seems like the film has a good grip on what it really wants to say, and half the time it doesn’t even seem as realistic as The Truman Show. Niccol’s career has had visionary moments, but Lord of War feels like the product of his blind spot.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13093&reviewer=385
originally posted: 02/23/07 00:39:52
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User Comments

7/07/10 mr.mike Could have been better. 3 stars
8/07/08 Discerning Patron Interesting visuals, but contrived. Ending has a clearly leftist political bent. 1 stars
6/06/08 MIchael Navarro Any nay-sayer shouldb ashamed of him/herself! 5 stars
11/22/07 Phil M. Aficionado Slick. Script not as good at the narration. 4 stars
5/28/07 hemant an excellent movie 5 stars
2/23/07 dmitry One of Cage's better performances 3 stars
11/04/06 A Concerned Citizen One of those movies that tells a plot you know, but, in an entirely unexpected way. 4 stars
7/16/06 JenDenmark Another cliche ending...anyone else tired of those? 2 stars
4/14/06 Steve Newman Best film of 2006 so far - Awesome Apr 06 5 stars
3/20/06 Ryan Decent acting, well scripted, but fails to engage you. 3 stars
3/17/06 MP Bartley Stylish and funny. Sags in the middle, but mostly great, surprisingly cynical stuff. 4 stars
3/05/06 Indrid Cold Great idea to address such a dour subject with plenty of style and humor. 4 stars
3/03/06 Simon Simply because it provoked discussion with me; otherwise flawed, excessive, over-fantastic. 4 stars
2/21/06 mwildema I rented this to kill time, became time well spent. 5 stars
2/19/06 Tanya excellent movie very true to life 5 stars
2/18/06 Abdul cage at his best! no one better could have played the role of uri irlov better... 5 stars
2/15/06 Bottlebigal A total waste of time and money. You won't expect such crap from Cage's movie. 1 stars
2/06/06 Mary Milan One on Nicolas Cage's great ones 5 stars
1/30/06 WiseMan Not What I had expected due to the Previews, Though it was One Incredible Eye opener. 5 stars
12/13/05 Corinne I kept waiting for the movie to start. It never did 1 stars
11/24/05 Agent Sands Less like Layer Cake, more like The Long Good Friday. 4 stars
11/21/05 Kurtis J. Beard Very flawed and contrived plot. Interesting tidbits. Great performance from Cage. 3 stars
11/18/05 Jimmy Kustes Not for everyone but Cage has had two great movies in 2005 5 stars
10/16/05 Philip Buckley-Mellor Really liked this film, especially how it doesn't draw too many conclusions. 4 stars
9/21/05 vagile Not flawless but a truly great film. 5 stars
9/21/05 Bentable worth a watch 4 stars
9/21/05 jcjs wow, wow, wow 5 stars
9/19/05 KingNeutron At times funny, but definitely thought-provoking. 4 stars
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  16-Sep-2005 (R)
  DVD: 17-Jan-2006



Directed by
  Andrew Niccol

Written by
  Andrew Niccol

  Nicolas Cage
  Jared Leto
  Bridget Moynahan
  Ethan Hawke
  Eamonn Walker
  Ian Holm

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