Despite a few missteps, Andrew Niccol’s latest film is a diverting tale set amidst the arms business.
The bravura opening sequence of Lord of War sets the darkly comic tone of the film. Playing like a twisted variation on Forrest Gump, we see the journey of a bullet (instead of a feather) as it is created in a factory, loaded into several crates, shipped, loaded into rifle and finally shot into a young man’s head with a sickening thud. In telling the story of a Ukrainian immigrant who finds his fortune by becoming a global gun runner, Niccol has created an interesting and intelligent look at the bleak logic of the arms trade. Whilst it never fully lives up to it’s potential, the central premise, of how the world’s ‘peace keepers’ fuel global violence by selling weapons to poorer countries, is an engaging one.
The story is narrated by Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an immigrant who from small beginnings gradually becomes a global arms dealer. Assisted by his younger brother Vitali (Jared Leto), Yuri realises the huge demand for guns and the film – with the help of some skilful editing by Zach Staenberg – moves rapidly through his career as he visits arms fairs, argues with rival dealer (Ian Holm) and eventually becomes the supplier to an African warlord (Eamonn Walker). All of this moves along nicely with Cage delivering a weary yet amusing voiceover, and despite unconvincing subplots involving a marriage to an unsuspecting wife (Bridget Moynahan) and an Interpol agent (an underused Ethan Hawke) constantly on his tail, the film is still engaging right up to its neat yet refreshingly cynical climax.
Some have complained that the immorality of Cage’s character is a real problem with this film. Why should we sympathise with an amoral arms dealer who is profiting from violence and exploiting it for his own financial gain? Given the premise, it would be a fairly dysfunctional film if his character was a cuddly, wisecracking man of the people. One of the strengths here is precisely that its central character is not likeable and is actually fulfilling a twisted version of the American dream. For Yuri, selling guns is like selling any other product – a point made with a slo-mo shot of a machine gun accompanied by the sound of a cash register – and given the past history of the US supplying weapons to rogue states Niccol deserves credit for engaging with an issue Hollywood would seek to sugar-coat or ignore (it is noticeable funding for the film came outside the major studios).
The main problem with the film is not that it isn’t smart or entertaining – for most of its running time it is both – but that it leaves too many plot strands and characters underdeveloped. Yuri’s wife and younger brother are never fully flashed out and the emotional arc of their stories feels undercooked, particularly set against the intelligence and dark wit of most of the film. In his previous scripts, especially Gattaca and The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol has shown a rare ability to shape engaging stories out of fairly intellectual premises. Whilst Lord of War is not quite up to the high standards of those two films it is still a refreshing change. Instead of merely showing violence, it explores the darker reasons as to why it is part of the world we live in today.