Sept. 07, 2005
By Kirk Honeycutt

Satire seems to suit gun-runners Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto.

Bottom line: A sharp and witty satire about the international arms trade.

"Lord of War" is an oddly satisfying mesh of an international action-adventure with an extremely dark satire about the global arms trade. Writer-director Andrew Niccol says he has based his story on actual events and created in his anti-hero a composite of five real-life arms dealers. Operating on the theory it is better to laugh than to cry, Niccol treats the rising fortunes of such a creature with comic irony. And in Nicolas Cage, he has a leading man who can behave with anti-humanitarian instincts and still compel audience fascination.

Production notes indicate this is a $50 million project, modest for an international escapade but high for a movie whose dark subject matter veers from the mainstream. It's a playable film with colorful characters and exotic locales, but without festival exposure, from which it may have benefited, "Lord of War" will need strong marketing to reach its audience.

The film is intelligently crafted from beginning to end. Opening credits express the ensuing story succinctly by following the manufacture and delivery of bullets right up to the point one is about to enter a young boy's brain.

Cage's Yuri Orlov narrates the story of his evolution into an illegal gun-runner. Normally, a voice-over narration presages weaknesses in the script. Not here. This narration is filled with wry observations about the international conspiracy to get guns and ammo into those regions of the world where they will do the most harm.

Yuri's family emigrated to the U.S. from Soviet-controlled Ukraine when he was a boy by falsely claiming to be Jewish. So, in essence, everything about Yuri is B.S., from his rationale that dealers in cars and cigarettes actually deliver more death than he does to his insistence to trophy wife, Ava (Bridget Moynahan), that his business is international transport.
His climb out of the Little Odessa immigrant community in Brighton Beach, N.Y., initially includes his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto). But gun-running turns Vitaly into an all-purpose addict. Yuri soldiers on, though, donning a suit and tie to meet the world's worst despots and warlords.

Even so, he has a hard time maintaining the guise of extreme wealth for his wife until the fall of the Soviet Union offers the largest bonanza of arms in history: More than $32 billion in arms get stolen from the Ukraine alone. For Yuri, it's an inside job, as his Uncle Dmitri, a perpetually soused army general, has the keys to the cache.

His competition comes from Ian Holm's silky smooth Simeon Weisz, who has enough conscience to trade with what he believes to be the politically righteous side. But Yuri's unprincipled methods work best with figures such as maniacal Liberian strongman Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his equally crazed son Andre Jr. (Sammi Rotibi).

As with Joseph Heller's great war novel "Catch-22," the comedy stems from your understanding that in war things really are this bad. What can one do but laugh at a guy who wears a bullet on a chain necklace, like a coke dealer's gold spoon, or worries more about catching AIDS in Africa than what his business is doing to the people?

Cage is brilliant. His Yuri is numb to reality, seeing only the next deal. He wears this stoicism as a badge of pride. The brother's spin out of control is the only realistic reaction one can have to the horror he sees and helps perpetuate. Leto's Vitaly is a kid who never should have left his parents' borscht restaurant.

Moynahan's character is hard to read because the movie views Ava only as Yuri sees her. Moynahan doesn't come into her home until her final scenes. Ethan Hawke as Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who dogs Yuri's trail for years, is perhaps too naive. Walker and Rotibi manage the trick of finding comedy in total insanity.

The production gets terrific mileage out of locations in South Africa, the Czech Republic and New York City, creating First and Third World countries worthy of a John le Carre novel.

Lions Gate Films
Entertainment Manufacturing Company presents a VIP Medienfonds 3, ASCENDANT Pictures, Saturn Films production in association with Rising Star, Copag V and Endgame Entertainment
Screenwriter/director: Andrew Niccol
Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Andrew Niccol, Nicolas Cage, Norman Golightly, Andy Grosch, Chris Roberts
Executive producers: Fabrice Gianfermi, Bradley Cramp, Gary Hamilton, Christopher Eberts, Andreas Schmid, Michael Mendelsohn, James D. Stern
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Jean Vincent Puzos
Music: Antonio Pinto
Co-producer: Douglas E. Hansen
Costumes: Elisabeth Beraldo
Editor: Zach Staenberg
Yuri Orlov: Nicolas Cage
Vitaly Orlov: Jared Leto
Ava Fontaine: Bridget Moynahan
Simeon Weisz: Ian Holm
Baptiste Sr.: Eamonn Walker
Baptiste Jr.: Sammi Rotibi
Valentine: Ethan Hawke
MPAA rating R
Running time -- 122 minutes