Tackling a subject as intriguing and controversial as gunrunning is a hazard for filmmakers.
How to make the person – ostensibly an unredeemable and heinous character – palatable to
audiences? Writer-director Andrew Niccol hasn’t been exactly successful in approaching this
conundrum in his third feature film LORD OF WAR, but comes close.
The film’s title sequence is an amazing set piece: we watch as a bullet is manufactured,
shipped around the world, is loaded in a gun and ends up in a victim. It’s a chilling and sobering
opening and certainly grabs your attention. We are then introduced to our main character, Yuri
Orlov (a fine Nicholas Cage) who will be narrating the film. Now, voice-over narration in a movie
generally means one of two things: the screenwriter is lazy and cannot figure out another way
to “show” the action so he relies on someone to “tell” the audience, or the film was so confusing
that the studio demanded the narration to assist the audience in figuring out what is happening on
screen. In LORD OF WAR, there’s more of the former than the latter: Yuri’s narration begins
to make sense as his life story unfolds. Unfortunately, his point of view is abandoned at a key point
late in the story (I guess we’re supposed to accept that what we’re seeing is his perception of what
occurred, but that seems unlikely.)
Yuri’s story is an intriguing one. He’s the son of immigrants from the Ukraine. His parents,
despite being Catholic, posed as Jews in order to be allowed out of the former Soviet Union.
Settling in Brighton Beach, his father continued the farce down to refusing to eat shellfish and
attending temple on the Sabbath. Recognizing that many Russian mobsters also fled to Brooklyn,
Yuri decides to go into business selling illegal firearms. Niccol reportedly did his homework
and created a composite character based on several real-life arms dealers which adds to the
verisimilitude of Cage’s character.
The film deftly, if somewhat lightheartedly, traces Yuri’s rise from a local gun runner to an
international salesman. At first, he includes his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, doing what he
can with a less than fully developed role) until Vitaly develops a severe drug problem. Yuri also
manages to capture the attention of his dream girl, Ava (Bridget Moynihan, who looks good
but lacks the dramatic chops to flesh out her character), who coincidentally is from Brooklyn.
She knows that he’s up to no good, but like a mobster’s wife, she tells her husband that she
doesn’t want to know anything about his business.
Yuri manages to become one of the most successful arms dealers, selling to “every army
but the Salvation Army.” We get a glimpse of his competition in the ruthless Simeon Weisz (an
underused Ian Holm), but it would seem that much more could have been explored. This is
especially true with Orlov’s dealings with fictitious African dictator Andre Baptiste (a compelling
Eamonn Walker), a character obviously based on Liberia’s notorious Charles Taylor. After
Orlov has established a connection with Baptiste, Weisz arrives to horn in on the territory, but the
main action occurs off screen.
Of course, no film of this type can be complete without a stolid good guy, in this case an
Interpol agent named Jack Valentine (a passable Ethan Hawke).
Niccol stages several scenes with panache and skill, but the overall film turns preachy and
predictable in the third act, especially Orlov’s inevitable betrayal, the death of someone close
to him, and the supposed twist ending. It’s something of a shame as this an intriguing and
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality
Running time: 122 mins.
Viewed at Magno Review One
|Lord of War
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.