IT COOL NEWS REVIEW
If Andrew Niccol is anything, apart from a gifted and inventive writer, hes 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 wasnt 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 someones 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 Niccols 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 doesnt 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 products ownership. Yuris a scumbag, but a likable scumbag. Hes not a murderer or a con artist. Hes 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 hes 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 cant 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, its Niccols opening credits and his final title cards. You see, as Lord of War builds, Yuri makes his case for why his profession isnt as evil as it may seem. Hes convinced himself of his trades necessity and over the course of the film, he might just convince you as well. But Niccols 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 isnt another single misstep to be found until the very end of the film. And its 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 Niccols 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 isnt a true or interesting fact but its 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. Its an eye rolling occurrence that attempts to hit you with something profound but instead seems like needless preaching.
You see, theres 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 makers conclusion for themselves. Title cards and CG sequences only serve to spoon-feed those who werent 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 films metaphor of Abortion then neglected presenting the Pro-life argument, despite having set up the perfect scenario with which to do so. And its not that I disagreed with The Cider House Rules thesis, nor with Niccols thesis here in Lord of War; its that a film maker should trust us to get what theyre 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.
Niccols 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 Yuris brother Vitaly who
sees a little too much of the trade and can never reconcile with himself what
hes done, sinking instead into an endless stream of drugs and meaningless
sex. Also returning to familiar waters is Ethen Hawke (who worked with Niccols
in Gattaca) who once again is playing his One Good Cop On a Mission role. Personally,
Ethen Hawkes cop roles are my personal favorites - his aw shucks maam
smile and nice guy demeanor instantly selling the squeaky clean image needed
to pull off each of these roles. Here Niccols 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.
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 Isnt
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. Its a really good film, a kick ass piece
of intelligent cinema that simply doesnt trust the audience enough to allow
it to be truly great. But regardless of Niccols preaching, I cannot really
recommend this film enough. Its the perfect palate cleanser separating
this years lackluster summer from the coming awards season.