Lord Of War

Irony is never lost on writer-director Andrew Niccol (Simone, The Truman Show), whose latest black comedy Lord of War takes aim at arms dealers. Niccol’s morality tale about one man’s vested interest in the pain and suffering of others walks a very fine line between entertainment and social relevance, asking us to root for an anti-hero devoid of a conscience.

Nicolas Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a decent Ukranian immigrant who works at the family’s Brighton Beach restaurant. Passing as Jews in order to immigrate, Yuri has always been in search of himself, and after witnessing a failed Little Odessa gangland hit, decides there’s big money in crime, or more precisely, arming criminals.

After recruiting younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), Yuri expands his fledgling business into a worldwide enterprise. With success comes trouble, especially for the addictive Vitaly, who immediately begins to suffer from the excess of riches. None of this phases Yuri, who refuses to take sides in his business dealings, keeping his eye only on the prize. Just how focused and determined Yuri is to close a deal becomes frighteningly evident when he sidesteps a family death in order to save merchandise.

It’s to Cage’s credit that we even care about Yuri, who makes it clear time and time again he’s in it for the thrills and money. For all intents and purposes Yuri is a scumbag of the highest order who constantly finds himself in tight situations. Yuri emotionally distances himself from the residual damage of his business, yet we oddly find ourselves drawn into his sordid life, rooting for his survival. The trick is to make the clients more despicable than their dealer, and it’s here where writer Niccol excels.

Though he turns a blind eye to the carnage committed by his product, Yuri isn’t blind to the economical reality. It’s not that the war lords and criminals have guns, but who supplies them. If not Yuri, then who? There’s plenty of rivalry, especially from veteran dealers (Ian Holm) unwilling to cut prices but always willing to cut down the competition. More than money, Yuri enjoys the rush, liberated from the mundane, free to feel alive and on the edge. Like Vitaly, Yuri engages in excess, but unlike his spirited brother, always keeps his eye on the bottom line.

Most people yawn through opening credits, but Lord of War exploits a fascinating bit of business: the production of a bullet. From its humble beginnings to its final destination, anyone paying attention will understand the beauty and precision which goes into its creation. Beauty gives way to horror as we finally follow the bullet into the skull of a small African boy. It’s a scene which repeats over and over again. Yuri bears witness to unspeakable horror, eventually becoming desensitized. His weariness becomes ours, leaving us no choice but to take his side, only because he’s the lesser of the two evils.

Ethan Hawke has some decent moments as an Interpol agent hot on Yuri’s tail but always tangled up in red tape, while Bridget Moynahan balances out the testosterone-heavy cast as Yuri’s clueless wife hoping love will be enough to set her husband straight.

Lord of War reminded me of the sort of movie Mike Nichols used to make back in the 1970s, an edgy anti-establishment dark comedy with even darker characters. Niccol’s refusal to lighten up gives Lord of War teeth and plenty of bite.

Locked and Loaded

Lord Takes Aim at War Merchants

Lord Of War

Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ian Holm, Eamonn Walker. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Rated R. 122 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $8.00

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