It’s that intro that everyone remembers.
The camera starts low, panning over a carpet of spent shell casings. Slowly angling up its point of view as it moves forward it reveals a man, standing with his back turned to us. There are smoking ruins around him and part-destroyed palm trees visible underneath a pristine, indifferent blue sky. He is wearing a suit and holding a briefcase. We get closer and gradually rise higher, until we’re at eye level with the man and just a bit too close for a comfortable conversation distance. That’s when he turns and addresses us directly:
‘There are over five hundred and fifty million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is…’
He takes a nonchalant drag on his cigarette before continuing.
‘How do we arm the other eleven?’
The man permits himself a small smile and the scene cuts to a factory. Sparks fly and men at work yell as the unmistakable opening guitar harmonics of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ take our hand and guide us through one of the more openly bravura introductions in modern cinema: an entire lifetime of a single bullet, from its birth in a factory alongside thousands of its siblings; to its packaging, shipping, mishandling, reclaiming, and eventual loading into a gun, until—finally—it reaches its ultimate destination: the head of a young man on the other side of the world from its birthplace.
That intro is almost a movie in and of itself, but it functions as an excellent statement of intent for the actual film that follows. Andrew Niccol’s 2005 Lord Of War is merciless skewering of a worldwide network of production, distribution, and devastation. Instead of another bullet being our proxy in its story however, it is the man in the suit: Nicolas Cage’s Yuri Orlov. Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees, lives in Little Odessa in the early 1980’s where he works in his parents’ restaurant alongside his brother, Vitaly (a competent, unburdened-by-method-nonsense Jared Leto). It’s not long before events, revelations, and contacts conspire to send Yuri hurtling face-first into the world of international arms trafficking, however, his younger brother in tow.
The kind of obviously flashy filmmaking on display in the bullet intro is tempered in the narrative that follows, but the visual richness does not go away: There is an abundance of color in Lord Of War, with quite indelible imagery peppered throughout. It is a globetrotting story after all, and Niccol and his DP (Amir Mokri) do not shy away from utilising the vibrant spectrum of possibility offered by this. Occasionally they over- or de-saturate a tad too much, but for the most part they err on the side of tasteful and evocative, instead of falling into the Michael Bay-style kaleidoscope-of-vomit trap. Their judgement is appropriate for the tale they are trying tell: a blackly comic tragedy rooted in our reality and its attendant miseries, but with one foot in a slightly heightened version of the world we know.
What’s that, you say? A blackly comic tragedy rooted in our reality and its attendant miseries, but with one foot in a slightly heightened version of the world we know? Paging Mr. Cage! Paging Mr. Cage! Yuri Orlov is a role that could have only been played by the erstwhile Coppola, aka. The Greatest Actor Of His Generation. He brings to the role a slimy hypocrisy, a manic zeal and energy, and an at times genuinely touching and crucial human connection. As with many of Cage’s performances, you cannot keep your eyes off him when he is onscreen. The movie, damn good as it is, would not work half as well without him, for as much as it is an account of large, continent-spanning systems it is also the study of one man’s twisted understanding of morals and humanity. Though perhaps it is Yuri, from his lonely perch outside the bounds of convention, who sees things as they really are. The film flirts with this consideration, partly through the use of a start-to-finish narration by Cage, but it never really embraces it. Its morals, unlike Yuri’s, are clear and set.
If there’s one thing Andrew Niccol’s script for Lord Of War could not be accused of, it’s having too much nuance. This is not a mark against it. In its exploration of this globe-spanning industry of death it takes aims at the individuals who run it, the governments and agencies who enable it, and the ludicrous sums of cash that exchange hands as a result of it—and it does not pull its punches. Hardly anyone comes out of this unscathed. Lord Of War’s sledgehammer j’accuse grants some clemency to the idealistic Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) hunting Yuri, always one step behind but determined; and to Yuri’s childhood crush and later wife Ava (an underwritten but good Bridget Moynahan); but apart from those two everyone is fair game. The movie does what the greatest satires do: it presents a dirty, cracked mirror up for us to view our world in, and it waits for it to dawn on us that it is not the mirror itself that is dirty and cracked, it’s what we are seeing in it. We laugh and we cry in equal measure as a result.