Lord of War


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Lord of War

Lord of War
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?” says expatriate Ukrainian Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) to the camera. Yuri is an international arms dealer who has plied his trade around the world for 20 years but his deadly life will catch up with him as a “Lord of War.”

Robin:
Yuri’s family settled down in New York’s Little Odessa Russian enclave when he and his brother Vitaly were kids. His dad, wanting to fit in to the then primarily Jewish community, opened a Kosher restaurant and became, according to his wife, more Jewish than the Jews. For Yuri, schlepping food is not what he wants out of life and he decides to broker in that other human need – guns. His first foray into arms dealing is, as he says, like sex for the first time. It’s scary and over all too quickly. After his initial deal Yuri becomes hooked with the excitement and profits to be had and begins his career as an international arms dealer.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol follows Yuri in his decades-spanning career of running guns and being a merchant of death around the world. Orlov, early in his lucrative career, decides that selling the odd Uzi here and there is not the way to make the big bucks. He enlists Vitaly into the business and the “brothers in arms” head to the Berlin weapons fair in 1983 to develop the contacts they will need for success. There, they meet uber arms dealer Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), a man who says he doesn’t sell guns, “I take sides.” These are profound, if unheeded, words for Yuri.

Orlov’s business takes him around the world, from Beirut to Bolivia, but it isn’t until 1991, when the Cold War ends and the arms business gets hot, that things get lucrative. Yuri becomes one of the tops in his field and life looks good. He has wooed and married beautiful fashion model Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). They have a handsome son, Nicky, and Yuri has more money than he knows what to do with. But, there is darkness on the horizon in the form of Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke); a dedicated law enforcer who will dog Yuri’s heals until he can bring the man down. Throw into this mix the bloodthirsty dictator Andre Baptiste (Eamon Walker) and his equally brutal son, Junior (Sammi Rotibi), and Yuri is headed for disaster.

There is a moral imperative to “Lord of War” that is well-stated early on in the film but this point – small arms are bad and, in the hands of bad people, will only cause death and havoc to innocents – is made over and over again as the story progresses. For a film about gun running, mercenaries, murder and worldwide mayhem there is surprisingly little blood used to make Niccol’s statement against international arms dealing very poignant or particularly emotionally moving.

Niccol uses Cage, as Yuri, to give an ongoing voiceover for the course of “Lord of War” that is both entertaining and, as a plot-moving device, annoying. It always seems to me that using a bodiless narration is a cheap way out for a filmmaker to tell a story. Cage has an infective speaking voice, true, but the images and the action should convey the story, not someone telling it to me. If I want to have someone read to me, I’ll borrow some books-on-tape from the library.

The characters in “Lord of War” are little more that two-dimensional figures. Even the likable Nicolas Cage does not rise above this even when, in what should be a life-changing moment but under-explored, he finds a toy gun in his son’s bedroom. He chucks the gun in the trash and you think that this will be the catalyst for change but it isn’t. When he draws his brother, Vitaly, back into the business, to deadly ends, it is only used to reinforce Yuri’s attitude that what he does is a “necessary evil.” Very bad guys, the Baptistes, senior and junior, are repeatedly used to represent evil but you get the impression that they are the only bad people in the world. Kill them and peace will reign.

Lord of War” is a slickly done satire that has a meaty subject matter. Helmer Niccol handles his material rather blithely, though, and it is wrought with a cynical attitude about the arms business. The film ends with a coda that the top weapons-dealing countries in the world also happen to be five of the members of the United Nations Security Council, with the United States as the premier arms dealer of these five. This sobering fact is lost in the mire of witty dialogue and clever CGI – one scene shows, in 24-hour time lapse, Yuri’s gun-smuggling cargo plane being systematically stripped to the ground; another, at the film’s start, shows the life of a bullet, from manufacture to its murderous end in some nameless conflict.

Andrew Niccol really had something going with his treatise on the evils of guns and arms dealing. But, he makes the selfish, conscienceless Yuri a sympathetic character that detaches the man from the wickedness that he wreaks upon a world. “Lord of War” shows that the only ones who really suffer are the innocents but this fact is lost in the satire, gloss and glitter of the film. Go to Amnesty International’s website (http:///www.amnesty.org) and support their mission against arms dealing if you want to make a difference. “Lord of War” doesn’t do it. I give it a C+.

Laura:
Yuri Orlov's (Nicolas Cage, "National Treasure") family runs a restaurant in Little Odessa, but the Russian mobsters who rule the area help him realize another human need - weapons. Soothing himself with all the usual self delusions, Yuri rises to the top of his illegal trade and his best customer, Liberian president Andre Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker, "Tears of the Sun," "Duma"), dubs him the "Lord of War."

Writer/director Andrew Niccol ("S1m0ne") takes on a huge issue and gives it the "Goodfellas" treatment, making his morally suspect lead a wisecracking narrator and entertaining guide into the glamorously evil world of gunrunning.  Niccol's film is more satirical, less of a real look into how this other world works (we never really learn the mechanics of how Yuri orchestrates his early deals).  It is also far less successful, overlong and not as emotionally engaging, but still will be an eye-opener for what ironically may not be its target audience.

Yuri address the camera to inform us that there is one firearm for every twelve people on the planet.  While he's trying to figure out how to arm the other eleven, the opening credits follow a bullet from its manufacture through packing, shipping, customs to its final destination in a third world country and the head of a young black child.  Yuri convinces younger sibling Vitaly (Jared Leto, "Alexander") to leave the kitchen and join him as 'Brothers in Arms.' Their first stop is the Berlin Arms Fair where Yuri's business proposal is shot down by Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm, "The Aviator"), who calls him an amateur, but where both brothers score hot chicks.

In no time, though, Yuri's selling globally (even, he tells us, to the Afghanis fighting the Russians, but not to Osama because he was bouncing checks at the time) and being dogged by Interpol Agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke, "Before Sunset," "Assault on Precinct 13").  Vitaly falls into a bad coke habit precipitated by his stronger moral convictions, but remains a good friend to the brother who regularly deposits him in rehab.  Yuri now has enough power and cash to set up a whirlwind wooing of the girl of his dreams, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan, "I, Robot"), a beauty from the neighborhood who has followed him around the world on billboard advertisements (shades of "Goodfellas'" Henry Hill's high flash wooing of Karen, as is the family Christmas scene accompanied by a retro holiday tune, the lead's later hallucinatory cocaine freakout and overhead helicopter surveillance).  The end of the Cold War brings the motherload, opening up huge stockpiles to which Yuri has an in - Uncle Dmitri (Eugene Lazarev, "The Sum of All Fears," "Duplex"), a Ukrainian military officer (we're told that thirty-two *billion* dollars in arms sales came out of the Ukraine alone).  But while Yuri's been responsible for, even witnessed, many deaths (he covers up his horror at Baptiste's casual shooting of one of his own aides by acting miffed that the gun is now 'used'), his resolve never wavers until 'Andy' Baptiste offers him the opportunity to execute arch-rival Weisz.

Niccol wraps his film with a moral condemnation of the big five arms dealers, the U.S. not only among them, but complicit in Valentine's inability to prosecute.  Yuri may suffer greatly, but he remains unchanged.

Cage and Leto are surprisingly well paired as brothers, the prettier Leto the angelic one who falls next to Cage's shameless and bold, gray-souled guy.  Cage pretty much tap dances through this, giving an ironic spin to the narration, occasionally allowing a glimpse of underlying humanity (watch for a deeper, more noteworthy Cage performance in the upcoming "The Weather Man"). Jean-Pierre Nshanian provides early humor as the dad who decides to remain Jewish, much to the consternation of his Catholic wife (Shake Toukhmanian, "Sideways"), explaining his fondness for the yarmulke as a reminder that 'there's something up there.' Moynahan displays more character than ever before as a truly loved trophy wife, dispensing warmth with Ashley Judd eye crinkles and showing more self-searching with her shallow life than her husband does with his murderous one.  Eamonn Walker and Sammi Rotibi ("Tears of the Sun") stand out as the tyrannical Liberian president and his trigger-happy, cannibalistic son.

Cinematographer Amir M. Mokri ("The Salton sea," "Taking Lives") provides an edgy, sometimes bordering on hyperrealistic, look to the film.  Niccol has chosen an obvious soundtrack to punctuate his points (Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," David Bowie's "Young Americans," Eric Clapton's "Cocaine," Andy Williams' It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah"), big guns for a large target.

B-
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