Andrew Niccol is a very smart guy. He wrote The Truman Show, the first draft of The Terminal for The Beard, and wrote and directed the supreme sci-fi noir Gattaca, which has to be one of the most prescient pieces of entertainment of the last 20 years. In 2005, he released Lord of War, which came and went in theaters, but it’s a film that I feel is widely undervalued, an action-flick with a brain (however cynical…), and it’s a title that deserves reconsideration and a second life. It sits at 61% overall at Rottentomatoes, which isn’t terrible. But I really feel that way too many critics missed the boat on this one, and that’s a shame, because with more support it might’ve had a better chance at connecting. Some people loved it and saw the film for what it is – a dry, ironic, and savage indictment of military policy and the worldwide demand for guns and wholesale death. Lionsgate, who released the film after it was produced independently, did a poor job of marketing (aside from the incredible one-sheets), selling it as a straight-forward action tale and showcasing the film’s explosions in the trailer, totally making it out to be a standard blow ’em up, something that Lord of War most definitely is not.
Based on true events, the busy narrative concerns international arms dealer Yuri Orlov (Cage) as he travels from war zone to war zone, looking for potential buyers. He supplies whole armies, ruthless mercenaries, and sometimes entire nations with their guns and tanks and battle-field equipment, and he gets paid cold hard cash – lots and lots of it. Yuri has zero conscience; these people, no matter how poor or uneducated, want their guns and they’re going to get them one way or another, so why not have them buy their goods from him? He’s just giving the people what they want. On Yuri’s trail is an FBI agent played by Ethan Hawke who is always one step behind, and there’s some B-story action involving Yuri’s model wife (hottie Bridget Moynahan), which isn’t as engaging as the material that deals with Yuri’s inherently dangerous profession, but by no means sinks the movie. He’s also got a coke-head brother played by wide-eyed Jared Leto who might become Yuri’s undoing.
Niccol’s poison-arrow satire darts hit all of their intended targets in Lord of War. This is a purposefully cold and pessimistic movie about a merchant of death, a “lord of war,” a guy who most likely isn’t going to learn anything by the time the narrative comes to a conclusion. He’s happy to be doing what he’s doing; thrilled, actually. Yuri isn’t likable, but Cage makes him engaging, and it’s one of his better performances, and came during that solid run of work which included Matchstick Men, Adaptation, and The Weather Man. He seemed very much attuned to the script’s tonal shifts and he appeared right at home playing an amoral, greedy hustler. The film also has a note-perfect ending that I just love, which comments bitterly on all that has come before it. The story really couldn’t have ended any other way if it wanted to be taken seriously, and I love how Niccol didn’t back down from the nasty truth that his movie displays.
Lord of War also has a scary-brilliant opening title sequence, one of the best I’ve ever seen to be totally honest, giving the audience a front-row, bullet’s-eye view of the birth of ammunition, from melted metal all the way to being placed in the chamber of an M-16, before being fired into someone’s skull. The camera positions itself on the side of a random bullet, and we follow that bullet’s life from creation to eventual resting place; it’s a small tour de force of filmmaking, announcing right up front that this movie isn’t playing by the normal set of rules. Working with extra-slick images from ace cinematographer Amir Mokri (Bad Boys 2, Man of Steel), Niccol crafted an exceedingly photogenic film, a work that shows how sexy guns can be, but one that’s also unafraid to show their deadly capabilities. Lord of War is a damn good movie, always very entertaining, and consistently thought provoking and politically resonant in ways that few might expect. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.