September 8, 2005 Ain’t it cool news:

Massawyrm hails the Lord of War
Hola all. Massawyrm here. Andrew Niccol is one hell of an interesting writer/director. Specializing in the old school, sci-fi morality play, Niccol weaves stories about one of the greatest of all sci-fi themes. The Dangers of Technology. With his classic film Gattaca, he masterfully told us of the dangers of cloning and the attempts to ‘perfect’ society – Better living through Chemistry, if you will. With his script for The Truman Show he warned us of the coming Reality Revolution as well as ruminated upon the notion of forever being watched – all while playfully biting at America’s obsession with mindless television. And with his film S1m0ne, arguably the least and most forgettable of the bunch, he discussed the dangers of an obsession with technology as well as the possibility of simply being replaced by it. Now, with Lord of War, he abandons the Sci-Fi genre altogether without for one second neglecting his long running thematic obsession. With Lord of War, Niccol goes after the guns.

If Andrew Niccol is anything, apart from a gifted and inventive writer, he’s just a tad bit heavy handed. Each of his films is told from the predetermined point of view that yes, Technology is dangerous. Rarely does he leave any ambiguity. Now, with his previous three scripts and films, this wasn’t such a big deal as it is here in Lord of War – after all there are few who would argue the dangers of gene tampering in our society such as it is or of wholesale entertainment at the expense of someone’s freedom. But in Lord of War, Niccol attempts to tackle the hot button debate of firearms and the men who traffic in them.

Telling the story (which is purportedly based on true events) of Yuri Orlov, a poor immigrant looking to make his mark on the world - as well as turn a healthy profit all the while - Niccol gives us what is for the most part a story full of gray areas. Equally showing both the ups and downs of the trade, Lord of War serves as Niccol’s departure from Sci-fi and his grand entry into the Autobiographical Scumbag sub-genre of films – a sub-genre peppered with such greats as Goodfellas, Casino, Blow and Layer Cake. And quality-wise this film fits in with that bunch just fine, turning out to be a nearly perfect film for its genre.

Lord of War is a wild ride, a healthy mix of comedy, drama, sex and disturbing images that doesn’t play around – it goes right for the jugular and never apologizes. Harsh, gritty and ballsy, the film gains its power and significance from the almost completely detached narration of Nicholas Cage (Yuri) who seems more concerned with explaining the ins and outs of the Gun Running trade than he ever is with the ramifications of his product’s ownership. Yuri’s a scumbag, but a likable scumbag. He’s not a murderer or a con artist. He’s a businessman – honest to his customers and straightforward in all of his dealings. The only thing separating him from any other businessman is his product. And the law. But he’s presented as a very genuine guy – He loves his family, pines after his grade school dreamgirl who has since become a model and desires simply to be good at what he does.

Of course having insane, blood thirsty customers and honest to a fault lawmen on his trail creates many an opportunity to put this guy through the wringer and show us the mastermind and cunning salesman he really is. And Nicholas Cage nails it. This is one of the great Nicholas Cage roles, easily as good as his turn in Matchstick Men (before the terrible, cop out twist ending). Subtle and nuanced, as he always is under the watch of talented directors, Cage makes you not only understand Yuri, but genuinely like him. Despite all of his flaws, all of his deceptions and all the work he does that makes you wince, you can’t help but like the guy. There are few men in the business that can play truly likable scumbags, but Cage has always been close to the top of that very short list, so this really is of little surprise. Given a solid script Cage never disappoints. And neither does Lord of War. Well, almost never.

If there is anything wrong with this film at all, it’s Niccol’s opening credits and his final title cards. You see, as Lord of War builds, Yuri makes his case for why his profession isn’t as evil as it may seem. He’s convinced himself of his trade’s necessity and over the course of the film, he might just convince you as well. But Niccol’s will have none of that. Insisting on hammering his point home, the film opens with a completely unnecessary mixed CG/practical sequence of the “Life of a Bullet” beginning in the machinery that assembles it, passing through the hands of inspectors, dock workers and arms dealers, to find itself into the skull of a young African boy. Hokey as it is, you can easily forgive this posturing and move on, because there isn’t another single misstep to be found – until the very end of the film. And it’s not that it has a weak ending. The ending is perfect. One of the key points to an Autobiographical Scumbag film is what happens exactly as the film leaves off – and Lord of War has a killer ending, easily on par with that of Goodfellas or Layer Cake. But then Niccol’s just has to muck it all up again by adding factoid title cards letting us know that the five biggest arms dealers in the world are also the five countries that have permanent places on the UN Security Council. Not that this isn’t a true or interesting fact – but it’s an idea barely even touched upon in the film - as Lord of War covers the illegal gun trade, not the government sanctioned trade this point addresses. It’s an eye rolling occurrence that attempts to hit you with something profound but instead seems like needless preaching.

You see, there’s nothing that bugs me more in a film than straight up preaching. For me a perfect film is one that offers us as an audience something to chew on but either gives both sides equal treatment – leaving the audience to think about, wrestle with, and debate their own opinions – or one that lays out a cinematic argument, but leaves the audience to draw the film maker’s conclusion for themselves. Title cards and CG sequences only serve to spoon-feed those who weren’t going to think about it to begin with and insult those who were. The film this most reminded me of with this similar problem is The Cider House Rules, which had the opportunity to present both sides of the Abortion issue, but decided instead to let Delroy Lindo lecture us on the film’s metaphor of Abortion then neglected presenting the Pro-life argument, despite having set up the perfect scenario with which to do so. And it’s not that I disagreed with The Cider House Rules’ thesis, nor with Niccol’s thesis here in Lord of War; it’s that a film maker should trust us to get what they’re saying without resorting to cheap tricks and lectures. And what frustrates me about Lord of War is that the other 99% of the film is just so damned good. Truly inspired, fascinating work.

Niccol’s puts together such a great cast and really lets them run wild. Jared Leto returns to the role he does best – the strung out loser – but showcasing his range, does it with the added layer of the frustrated immigrant. Far from a simple reprise of his character in requiem for a Dream, Leto is Yuri’s brother Vitaly who sees a little too much of the trade and can never reconcile with himself what he’s done, sinking instead into an endless stream of drugs and meaningless sex. Also returning to familiar waters is Ethen Hawke (who worked with Niccol’s in Gattaca) who once again is playing his One Good Cop On a Mission role. Personally, Ethen Hawke’s cop roles are my personal favorites - his aw shucks ma’am smile and nice guy demeanor instantly selling the squeaky clean image needed to pull off each of these roles. Here Niccol’s flips it though, allowing Hawke to slip back into that familiar cop role, but playing it as the films chief antagonist. Ian Holm and Bridget Moynahan round out the cast, turning in note perfect, if not slightly underused, performances.
But the real surprise here is Eamonn Walker, who’s turn as the slightly deranged and power mad rendition of Andre Baptiste steals the show. Along with Sammi Rotibi (playing Baptiste’s completely insane son) he presents the twisted despotism rampant in Africa to a - sometimes frightening and other times intentionally funny – tee. Each and every scene with these two captures a sense of the pure madness and uncertainty that comes with the arms trade, putting Yuri into some truly intense and awkward moments.

Aside from the aforementioned problem of the seemingly tacked on opening and closing credit sequences, I have zero complaints about the structure, performances and writing of this film – although others may. For those weary of the Autobiographical Scumbag, this film could easily feel like a been-there-done-that concept. And what with The Interpreter and The Constant Gardener predating Lord of War by a few months and a few weeks respectively, this could easily come across to others as yet another “Isn’t Africa fucked up?” movie. In my humble opinion though, this stands shoulder to shoulder with the other Scumbag films and easily surpasses its contemporaries in the Fucked up Africa subset. It’s a really good film, a kick ass piece of intelligent cinema that simply doesn’t trust the audience enough to allow it to be truly great. But regardless of Niccol’s preaching, I cannot really recommend this film enough. It’s the perfect palate cleanser separating this year’s lackluster summer from the coming awards season.
Well, until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. I know I will.