Body of Lies gives the moviegoer a reason to feel excited. Here you have two of the best actors of the day - Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio - working together in a topical story, directed by a master filmmaker (Ridley Scott). Of course, there are no guarantees in life - or in the cinema - but that's about as close as you're gonna come to a sure thing. And that's why it's so surprising that this film is as lackluster as it is. I honestly left the theater feeling agitated from being let down so heavily.
There's a scene at the beginning that promises greatness. Crowe, as veteran CIA supervisor Ed Hoffman, warns that the U.S. is full of "men from the future." Terrorists, he says, have grown smart and recognized this, so their response is to act like "men from the past." In other words, they have eschewed sending information via cell phones and computers, choosing instead to convey directions through old-fashioned channels. When they stop using the technology, the "men from the future" have a hard time finding them.
Hoffman's chief field operative is Roger Ferris (DiCaprio). They are working to expose a terrorist cell that has gone off the technological grid and started issuing orders through hidden messages on paper and face-to-face communiqués. They have already succeeded in bombing several places in Britain, with American attacks a certainty. Ferris goes to an official from Jordan named Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) to ask for help in conducting surveillance on a safe house where much of the plotting may be taking place. However, his attempts to deal with Hani in an honest, honorable way are undermined by Hoffman, who withholds information and conducts parallel investigations at the same time. Ferris, believing this could cause a catastrophe, clashes fiercely with his superior - when he's not romancing a local nurse (in a totally unneeded romantic subplot).
I had the same problem with Body of Lies that I've had with some of the other Middle Eastern-themed films of the past few years: I had trouble following it. If there's one thing I hate more than a bad movie, it's a confusing movie, because telling a clear, coherent story is pretty much a basic requirement. This is not to say that stories can't be challenging or require intuition. In fact, I love movies like that. No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood - I get those pictures. And I got the overall arc of Body of Lies too. It was the specifics that I didn't get: how the plot gets from A to B to C, some of the connections between people, etc. This is one of those deals where they throw a lot of names at you very quickly and have a lot of people double- or triple-crossing each other. Trying to keep up with it all when dialogue is whizzing by and sound effects are blasting from the speakers is not easy. When you spend half the movie just trying to keep up, you are inherently prevented from enjoying yourself because it starts to feel less like entertainment and more like work.
The other really crippling problem is the lack of development of the Russell Crowe character. The story starts out with the scenario pretty much in place. Ferris is out in the field, forming his opinions from first-hand observation, while Hoffman is back in the States, manipulating his alleged teammate in an almost callous manner. Here's my question, which the film never answers: Why is Hoffman like this? Aside from not directly addressing the issue of why a CIA supervisor would so blatantly conceal important information from his man in the field, the film never even hints at a reason. There are scenes of Ferris and Hoffman clashing, and we can understand that Ferris might be angry, yet the dramatic tension between them would be so much more riveting if we understood its origins. As it plays, Hoffman just seems like something of a jerk. I wanted to know what, in his years of work, gave him the approach that he takes.
Despite some exciting scenes and very good performances (most notably from Mark Strong), Body of Lies is never as good as you want it to be, which is too bad, because there's real potential here. I was particularly intrigued by the humanistic view held by Ferris. He sometimes puts himself in danger to prevent others from possibly being tortured. Given that the use of "coercion" is such a hot topic, there's something pleasantly provocative about a movie that dares to suggest that this tactic perhaps does not yield the kind of results our intelligence community hopes it will. This really should be the heart of the movie, with Hoffman representing a "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" perspective and Ferris arguing the Biblical philosophy that "an eye for an eye leaves both men blind." The general idea is there, just not nurtured enough.
The bottom line is that Body of Lies should have been so much more. Ridley Scott is an intelligent director. He specializes in filling his pictures with exacting detail. It is odd, then, that he somehow failed to miss the fact that he wasn't telling his story clearly, or that he was burying its most compelling aspects beneath action scenes and romantic subplots that detract from them. What a shame.
( out of four)
Body of Lies will be available in a variety of formats Feb. 17. There is a single-disc movie-only version (plus digital copy) on DVD, with your choice of fullscreen or widescreen viewing modes. There is also a 2-disc Special Edition that contains the following bonus features:
The Blu-Ray will contain all these features, as well as deleted scenes (with optional Ridley Scott commentary) and Interactive Debriefing, which allows viewers to program interviews with DiCaprio, Crowe, and Scott to be viewed by topic, participant, or both. A "play all" button will generate a virtual documentary on all topics.
Although I had some reservations about Body of Lies, I'm of the belief that any Ridley Scott movie is worth a look (at least on DVD) because he's such an ambitious filmmaker. While it may not have been as successful as his best work, Body of Lies no doubt has aspirations above and beyond many movies in the current marketplace.
Body of Lies is rated R for strong violence including some torture, and for language throughout. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
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