by Carlito de Corea
Nicolas Cage’s new film, Lord of War, of which he is also one of the producers, does not quite hit its target. The film opens with Cage’s character, Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian arms dealer, talking to the camera, giving statistics about the ratio of gun owners, one in twelve, to the entire number of people in the world, concluding with a cheeky remark about his only problem being to figure out how to get guns to the remaining eleven. The film goes on to show Yuri’s progression from working in his family’s restaurant to becoming the world’s most successful and ubiquitous “gun runner.”
While the film is dynamic and stylish in its imagery and direction, the story telling is somehow not quite complete. The story progresses prematurely through each stage of Yuri’s rise to the top of the gun running trade. We go from his witnessing a gangland hit in Little Odessa, which rather than shocking him somehow motivates him to become a gun dealer, to his first gun sale in some hotel room, then to his already having connections in the middle east, and, finally, to facilely procuring the object of his arbitrary romantic obsession, a world famous model, of Ukrainian descent, all in far too few scene changes. The effect is that the story feels like it is being pushed along too quickly without proper development, and that the situations the characters find themselves in are being artificially arrived at.
As a result the film seems less substantial, and at times unrealistic. We feel this early on in the film when we see Yuri simply walk into a warehouse full of abandoned U.S. military weapons without any explanation as to how he was able to do this; and then later again when he conveniently has a relative who is a general in the Ukrainian military during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is therefore able to obtain prodigious amounts of AK-47s and a host of other weapons and military machinery, by which he finally becomes top dog in the arms trade business, so to speak.
In the beginning, from the voice-over, I wondered whether this movie was made from the memoirs of an actual gun dealer, in the same way that Goodfellas was based on the Henry Hill memoir of his days in the mafia. I hoped that this might be the case, as I pondered the conspicuous absence of any exposition. That is to say, I hoped the lack of detail, the sudden appearance of Cage’s character in a variety of high stakes circumstances, was coming from a confidence in the facts of some memoir, rather than the absence of any logistical knowledge of the gun trade. In the end, however, it is the sense that the film’s creators only possess a vague, possibly researched, knowledge of the gun trade that predominates. Details are glossed over in too many places to create a realistic sense of danger or circumstantial tension. The bold, expedient pace, in the end, seems to serve the purpose of covering up narrative deficiencies, rather than taking stylistic liberties on the foundation of authentic knowledge.
This loss in the film’s realism is further compounded by the casting of Jared Leto as Yuri’s brother, Vitaly. Leto is too clean cut and good looking to be playing a gun dealing cocaine addict from Little Odessa, and he simply does not look like an Eastern European. Perhaps as an Orange County brat snorting cocaine he might carry some appeal, some credibility (as he did in Requiem for a Dream), but in Lord of War he stands out like…well, an Orange County brat…in the middle of West African and South American guerilla warfare…snorting cocaine. His character was distracting to watch. Ethan Hawke is passable as the Interpol agent on Yuri’s heels, although perhaps a little young for the part, or perhaps too boyish. We get the feeling that in this part any big name would have done the trick. Cage is engaging and for the most part enjoyable enough to watch as Yuri, although his voice-over seems to contradict his purported heritage, sounding more like a valley dude from LA than a street smart kid from Little Odessa. And the lethargy in this voice-over somehow seems out of sync with the pace of the film. A little too “laid back” for the frenetic circumstances that dominate the character’s life.
While the political point of view seems clear—people in the arms business are without conscience and are as responsible for the death that comes from the weapons they sell as the people who pull the triggers—in the end we are not sure whether to admire Cage’s character or condemn him. Is he the ultimate survivor in a corrupt and violent world, a realist, to be admired, or is he a rationalizing monster, to be condemned? Lord of War seems to straddle the fence on this question. While we can see that the answer is not simply that he is one or the other, but both, the film makes the mistake of trying to answer both moral positions, making the film sophomorically didactic at times. Perhaps a grittier and less apologetic view of the arms trade, and a little more confidence in the audience’s ability to discern the moral of the subject matter, would have strengthened the film.
Despite some of its shortcomings, however, Lord of War is not unenjoyable. The strength of its imagery and the sensual scenery of the South African location, and other various locations, carry the film a long way. As well, much of the action and special effects are quite dynamic and make the movie enjoyable enough to watch. Such moments as the landing of the cargo plane on a dirt highway in West Africa, as Yuri and his crew are being shot at by Interpol jets, for example, create visually powerful moments in the film that help make up for some of its other deficiencies. While this movie does not quite hit the mark as the heavy hitting political film that it perhaps intended to be, it does manage to be entertaining.