Lord of War gets my vote for having the best opening credit sequence of the year. The camera follows a single bullet all the way through the assembly line and into a box, where it is shipped via boat and automobile to a war-torn country, loaded into a semi-automatic weapon, and ultimately fired into someone’s head. This dazzling sequence (made to look like one unbroken shot) is like a phone call in the middle of the night; it alarms you and signals that something important is going on.
The film is the story of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), who addresses the audience in his first scene. There are enough guns in the world to arm one out of every twelve people. “How do we arm the other eleven?” he asks. Yuri is a Ukrainian immigrant who lives in Little Odessa, one of the seediest parts of New York, where Russian gangs commit murders almost daily. It is after seeing one such murder that Yuri realizes how much money could be made selling guns. After all, everyone has an enemy, right? He starts small, snagging an Uzi (for which he has to read the instruction manual) and re-selling it to a lowlife thug. With younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) in tow, he attends an arms expo in Berlin, where Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), a powerful government-sponsored arms dealer, rejects Yuri’s offer of partnership.
He eventually hits the jackpot when the Iron Curtain falls. Calling upon an uncle in the Russian military, Yuri gains access to thousands of decommissioned semi-automatic weapons. He sells them on the black market, becoming so successful that he starts taking business away from Weisz. During the rare occasions at home, Yuri woos and marries Ava (Bridget Moynahan), the model he’s been fixated on ever since they grew up near each other. Like a mob wife, she knows something’s fishy but doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Her only demand is that he not let work get between them. His promise sounds sincere, but we know that selling arms is his true love.
One of Yuri’s most faithful – and deadly – clients is Andre Baptiste, Sr. (Eammon Walker), a ruthless African dictator with a penchant for mangling English expressions. (Instead of a “warlord,” he calls himself a “lord of war.”) Just being in Baptiste’s vicinity is dangerous enough, but Yuri also has to deal with a federal agent named Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) who tracks him around the globe, trying desperately to nail him. Somehow the dealer always gets the upper hand. When Valentine forces his plane to land in a remote section of Africa, Yuri quickly unloads a load of weapons by handing them out to any man, woman, or child who can hold one. The moral implications of this act are not considered by Yuri for even one second.
Lord of War is really the story of a man in denial. Whereas Simeon Weisz “only” sells weapons to those who might use them on America’s enemies, Yuri will sell them to anyone. He convinces himself that what the clients do with those guns is no business of his. He issues platitudes about how he’d prefer no one die, just so long as everybody’s shooting. He insists that he’s no different than a car dealer, just trying to make a living selling something for which there is a sizable demand. What’s interesting is watching Yuri try to cling to these beliefs, even as reality keeps slamming into him. His life is repeatedly in danger, murders are committed right before his eyes, and his wife reaches a point where she can no longer look the other way. These are bad things, but for Yuri, the pros outweigh the cons. Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
There is an interesting contrast between Yuri and Vitaly, who sees the violence first-hand and feels guilty about it. His way of coping is to snort large quantities of cocaine. Late in the film, he makes a desperate attempt to wake his brother up to the atrocities they are contributing to. Yuri’s response is indicative of just how deep his denial runs. For him, selling weapons is the only thing he’s ever been good at. Take that away and you’re left with an unlikable schmuck who can’t pay the rent or get the girl. The character is very aware of his own paradox; in fact, he tries to convince himself (and us) that there’s merit in being so brilliant at something, even if most people would be contemptuous of his skill.
This is one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances in years. You will not like Yuri. You are not supposed to. But you will not hate him either. Instead, you will understand what drives him and makes him so successful. Cage plays the character with an immoral charm. There is an old legend about the scorpion who convinces the frog to carry him across the river. Once on the other side, the scorpion reneges on his promise not to bite. The dying frog says, “Why did you do that to me?” The scorpion replies: “I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature.” That’s the kind of guy Yuri Orlov is. It’s not an easy role to play – especially if you want the audience to follow along – but Cage pulls us in completely.
Lord of War was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who has made other good films (Gattaca, Simone) but achieves something truly special here. Most of us don’t give a lot of thought to arms dealers, but perhaps we should. Guys like Yuri play all sides against the middle, undoubtedly contributing to the overall sense of instability and crisis that so many countries are currently experiencing. The movie makes us think about that uncomfortable reality without sacrificing entertainment value. Niccol has made a film that ranks with another recent classic of dissention: Three Kings. Both have a sense of anger just below their wry humor. Both deal with the all-consuming shades of gray that can cause souls to become lost. Moral ambiguity has rarely been so well done on screen.
( 1/2 out of four)
Lord of War is rated R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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