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May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Andrew Niccol is one of the few directors around these days who has a budget to match his conscience. With Gattaca, whatever its faults, that conscience shined through enough to give the movie an edge of legitimacy. He makes a play for the exact same thing with Lord of War, throwing together a sizably filmed venture and big names with some truly thought-provoking issues, a sublime satire. They appear to be ingredients for an above-average film, provided the proper balance could be struck. Alas …

Lord of War begins with a bullet — tracking its life, so to speak, from manufacture to sales, from sales to distribution, and from distribution to the skull of an underage African combatant. The merchant who peddles the means to this destruction, we learn, is Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an illegal arms dealer who rises through the ranks to become the premium supplier of guns to warlords and despots around the globe.

Does Orlov feel even the slightest bit guilty that he’s the purveyor of wanton death and destruction? Well, no. When he’s not simply turning a blind eye to his crimes, he’s busy constructing a warped web of rationale: “Without operations like mine it would be impossible for certain countries to conduct a respectable war.” Whether through self-deception or callousness, Orlov remains relatively unmoved by his career even while those around him, including his irresolute brother (Jared Leto) and trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan) come apart under the stress of his crimes. Ultimately a menacing Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) and troubles with a Liberian dictator force him to confront exactly who he is and what he does.

I’ll be honest with you: I just don’t like Nicolas Cage. The man exudes an ingrained (and unfounded) sense of smug entitlement. With the notable exception of Adaptation, it feels like every single damn one of his roles is parlayed through that confident, deadpan insipidness and its arched-brow faux-solemnity. It gets on my nerves.

Perhaps my own personal biases aren’t the best thing to address when assessing Lord of War, but they might illustrate a point: Is this movie about the man, or the message? Niccol tries to walk a fine line between the two, being didactic about real-world issues and using the personality of Orlov and his views on the subject as the vehicle. And while Cage’s character provides for caustic and intelligent satire, it just isn’t that evocative — Cage in particular. None of the performances, in fact, can stand up to the weight of the film’s implications, and I doubt anyone will give a damn about Orlov’s fate in the end because their concern has been divided between the central characters and everyone in the world living in war-torn countries.

Lord of War succeeds in being both politically stirring and relevant to conflict in the Third World. As a character study it’s interesting, but nowhere near as compelling. I appreciate and applaud Niccol’s message, but he needs to make up his mind whether his film is an informative plea, dark satire, or crime thriller, because after two hours of riding the fence, it starts to chafe.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Lord of War / Phillip Stephens

Film | May 12, 2006 |

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