2½ stars (out of four)
With a brisk stylistic nod to Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (which is not to say it's another "GoodFellas"), writer-director Andrew Niccol's "Lord of War" chases an international arms dealer around the globe, delivering to the audiencemostly by way of Nicolas Cage in near-constant voiceovera flurry of facts, figures and fictionalized skullduggery regarding the relentless proliferation and redistribution of conventional weaponry.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a character, according to Niccol, based on five different real-life dealers. Yuri's family left Ukraine for the Little Odessa section of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. Life in the family's struggling restaurant business isn't much. Then Yuri and his wilder, more unreliable younger brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto), become literal brothers in arms, supplying guns, tanks and other items to a variety of causes and revolutions and freedom fighters and thugs.
In this moral universe it is always twilight. Success breeds the emblems of success. Yuri acquires Ava (Bridget Moynahan), the woman who first stirred his desires back in Little Odessa, convincing her somehowit's pretty vague, and she's a dramatic blankhe's in "international transport." She doesn't learn what he's transporting, exactly, until late in the game. Meantime Vitaly, on the way up, succumbs to huge, '80s-sized mounds of recreational cocaine.
Yuri teams up with his Uncle Dimitri, a dissolute Ukranian general sitting on a huge stash of weapons freed up by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yuri's business rival (Ian Holm) cannot compete. The film darts from America to the old country to Africa. African warlords prove reliably steady customers, but when Yuri and Vitaly run afoul of the vicious Liberian dictator Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker), Yuri meets his Waterloo. The Interpol agent on Yuri's tail (Ethan Hawke) finally gets his man. Or does he?
Niccol, whose previous writer-director efforts include "Gattaca" and who wrote "The Truman Show," intends Yuri to be a compelling scoundrel, troubling in ethical terms but lively and blackly amusing screen company. He is, up to a point. A portrait such as this should trade guns for a stiletto at a crucial juncture, sticking it to the audience good and proper. That never happens here. The film is morally unsettling on its surface, and then you realize the surface is all you're going to get.
In other, more conventional roleswho would've thought Nicolas Cage would turn out to be an action-hero type, even an off-center one?Cage has fired off his fair share of weapons for the benefit of international box-office slaughter. It's admirable and unexpected for him to take on a role, and a film, detailing the whys and wherefores about the source of all that killing.
Both script and performance, however, waver between black comedy (which is what audiences think they're getting from the TV commercials) and more routine international-thriller concerns. Yuri is the picture, and Cage dominates it, yet the character lacks amplitude. As Niccol acknowledged in an appearance following a recent Chicago screening, Cage's voice-over narration comes in two varieties: Ironically blasé, and more so. The film's tone of mournful irreverence runs its course after a while. Only Walker's Baptiste, a Liberian smiler with unlimited capacity for debauched cruelties, cuts through the surface of this honorable, flawed effort, which is very much about something that matters, to create a memorable and alarming nightmare disguised as a human being, armed to the teeth.
'Lord of War'
Directed by Andrew Niccol; screenplay by Niccol; cinematography by Amir M. Mokri; production design by Jean Vincent Puzos; music by Antonio Pinto; edited by Zach Staenberg; produced by Nicolas Cage, Norman Golightly, Andy Grosch. A Lions Gate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (strong violence, drug use, language and sensuality).
Yuri Orlov - Nicolas Cage
Vitali Orlov - Jared Leto
Ava Fontaine - Bridget Moynahan
Simeon Weisz - Ian Holm
Andre Baptiste Sr. - Eamonn Walker
Jack Valentine - Ethan Hawke