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Dustin Putman

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Lord of War (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Andrew Niccol
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker, Ethan Hawke, Ian Holm, Sammi Rotibi, Shake Tukhmanyan
2005 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 17, 2005.

With its inside look into a worldwide illegal-activity-turned-profession, "Lord of War" would make for an ideal companion piece to 2001's "Blow." While the latter told the story of real-life drug dealer George Jung (played by Johnny Depp), the former centers on hugely successful gun-runner Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a fictional character with a self-employed job that is all too plentiful across the globe. Stylish, stirringly acted, and always on the go, "Lord of War" provokes thought and much interest about the job of arms dealers and the grisly indirect role they play in much of the violence, chaos, and destruction that occurs in today's era. As a biopic (even one about a screenplay creation), writer-director Andrew Niccol (2002's "Simone") is a bit shakier in his execution. Leaping across three decades without much time feeling as if it's passed, the characters do not age a day and Yuri's journey to the big time happens so suddenly that no time is spent showing how he is able to break into the trade in the first place. He just does.

Opening in 1982 and spanning twenty years, Yuri, a Russian-born New Yorker who wants more out of life than working at his parents' restaurant, falls into a fascination of using guns for financial gain beyond his wildest dreams. After getting a feel for the trade, Yuri quickly rises to become a knowledgeable independent arms dealer, traveling from country to country and selling his products to anyone willing to pay—world leaders, civilians, and even U.S. enemies at the height of war. Unable to break from a giant payday, Yuri nonetheless can't help but become a little conscious to the tragic seeds of weapons breeding violence that he has left in his wake. Also figuring into the narrative ("plot" may be too strong a word, since there isn't a conventional driving force to the episodic events) are Yuri's troubled, drug-addicted younger brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto); Yuri's supermodel wife, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who chooses not to pry into her husband's affairs but is smarter than he gives her credit for; and InterPol Agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who is on to what Yuri is doing but thwarted at being able to prove it.

"Lord of War" is expertly crafted from a technical stance, beginning with an ingenious jolt as the camera follows the point-of-view of a single bullet from its birth in a factory to its death in someone's head. Singular images are powerfully framed and indelible, such as that of the toppled-over statue of Vladimir Lenin, a plane's complete overnight stripping by Third World civilians (done in one sped-up shot), a shot looking out of a sunroof at a helicopter flying amidst the high-rise buildings, and the aforementioned glorious opening titles sequence. The plentiful, diverse selection of familiar songs spanning across five decades (from Buffalo Springfield to Eric Clapton to Mazzy Star) are also outstanding, aiding in energizing the pace and effectively accentuating the tone and themes.

Nicolas Cage (2004's "National Treasure") is brilliant as always, taking a fairly unlikable character and making him palatable and worth investing your time in. The role of Yuri Orlov, a not-bad man in some very bad dirty dealings, seems to have been tailor-made for Cage—indeed, one cannot imagine any other actor being as good in the part. It is an intriguing fusion of a protagonist also in many ways being the antagonist. As problem-ridden "brother in arms" Vitaly, Jared Leto (2004's "Alexander") is mesmerizing, making a whole lot out of his tortured soul of a character, and Bridget Moynahan (2004's "I, Robot") acquits herself better than usual as Yuri's trophy wife Ava. Also making an impression are Eamonn Walker (2003's "Tears of the Sun"), fabulously disturbing as psychopathic, cannibalistic Libyan leader Andre Baptiste Sr., and Ian Holm (2004's "Garden State") as bitter Yuri rival Simeon Weisz.

"Lord of War" enraptures the viewer for a full two-hour running time, managing to be educational as well as entertaining, but its free-floating plot as it drifts from event to event makes it a series of favorable memories rather than a fully-formed motion picture. The sometimes confused timeline is also cause for a disjointed feeling (Yuri's son ages two years in the span of nearly ten). And, as appealing as Cage is as Yuri, he cannot do anything about his character's lack of an emotional arc. Does he learn anything by the end of the movie? The answer to this is up for grabs, and is a crucial missing link to what is otherwise a textured and dynamically informative drama. "Lord of War" is less than the sum of its parts, but those parts that work make for a fairly riveting excursion into the dark world of arms dealers.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman