By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
The tale of international gunrunning hits the mark thanks to the work of writer-director Andrew Cassel and actor Nicolas Cage.
Lord of War begins with a bang, or at least spent cartridges from a lot of guns that went bang, littering a street somewhere, as far as the eye can see. The man standing among those shells sold them to someone who wanted to kill someone else. Death is Yuri Orlov's business, and business is good.
It could be better, Yuri figures in the first of many sharply written inner thoughts voiced by Nicolas Cage. Not everyone in the world is armed. Not yet. Yuri is a graduate of the Scarface school of economics, although guns and cocaine swap places as product and pastime; Yuri would have sold Tony Montana his "little friend."
That opening grabber is followed by a flabbergasting credits sequence, tracking the path of a single bullet from a factory to the forehead of some freedom fighter or oppressor somewhere. In Yuri's line of work, you don't take sides. Wherever there's a political hot spot, he's there offering weapons to the highest bidder. The cardinal rule: "Don't get shot with your own merchandise."
Lord of War is a thinking person's action flick, written and directed with equal flair by Andrew Niccol. The Die Hard crowd can easily love it - or anything with gun powder - and those thrilled by Niccol's trenchant themes in writing The Truman Show, The Terminal and Gattaca will be rewarded again. Tough messages lurk beneath the fun mayhem, as political dynamics allowing people like Yuri to exist in real life are exposed.
Cage makes his best impression on screen in years as Yuri, a Ukrainian immigrant rising above his Little Odessa roots through gunrunning. Don't worry; Cage doesn't resort to one of his strange accents for the role. His detached readings of Niccol's narration convey Yuri's growing dissatisfaction with his career choice, and muted pride in some of his trickier deals and escapes. This is an antihero who isn't so cool that we feel immoral pulling for him.
Niccol based Yuri's story on true events in the gunrunning trade. Although fascinating, the collection of tales makes the movie too episodically coincidental at times, especially in Yuri's relationship with Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) who, like Yuri, is impossibly everywhere. Niccol's voiceover tactic occasionally makes his movie resemble a clever book-on-CD. Who can complain much when a film's worst flaws are this well-executed?
Cage's performance bounces off several nicely conceived characters. Jared Leto plays Yuri's brother (in arms) Vitaly, who dips too deep into cocaine a customer forces the Orlovs to accept as payment. Before that binge, Vitaly is a sharp guy - witness how he handles a potential bust at sea - and later he's just another bullet for Yuri to dodge. Leto is impressive, as is Ian Holm as a rival arms dealer and Bridget Moynahan as Ava Fontaine, the neighborhood dream girl Yuri finally wins before wondering why he bothered.
Lord of War features indelible action images that, when Niccol is rolling, dovetail into something else entirely. A crash-landing sequence on a busy African road gets more thrilling than I ever expected, deftly shifting to another crackling confrontation between Yuri and Jack, then a time lapse situation that's funny and a little sad at once. Yuri's romance of Ava is a fine example of visual storytelling, capped by a wonderful sight gag.
Niccol's film is amorally fun, yet with a serious streak he never allows viewers to forget. Independent contractors such as Yuri aren't the most successful gunrunners; an end note names the top five nations selling arms worldwide, including the United States. They're also the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Business is good.Lord of War
Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker, Sammi Rotibi
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Rating: R; strong violence, harsh profanity, drug abuse, sexual situations, nudity
Running time: 122 min.