Body of Lies is a riddle wrapped in an enigma served with a side of mystery meat. It's very watchable, with some entertaining action beats, kind of a Syriania as scripted by Tom Clancy, a The Kingdom with a little less C.S.I -- heavy on the tech, snappy in the dialogue.
But the showy dialogue -- and a scenery-chewing turn by Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead -- forces Ridley Scott's latest foray into the morass of the Middle East to straddle that line between "not bad" and "not all that, either."
DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, an Arabic-speaking C.I.A. field agent, at home in Iraq or Turkey, the United Arab Emirates or Amman, Jordan. He's chasing this phantom terrorist Al-Saleem. He's constantly on the phone with his portly, desk-jockey boss, the D.C.-based field chief, played with a cagey drawl by Russell Crowe. Ferris goes undercover, works agents, tries to "turn" terrorists, always with Ed Hoffman (Crowe) watching in, by spy plane, listening in by phone.
They have shouting matches, disagreements over strategy, largely over issues of trust or control. And maybe cell phone bills.
"You've gotta decide which side'a the cross you're on," drawls Ed. "I need nailers. Not hangers."
Ed's interference, his running of "side operations" behind Roger's back, is dangerous. But it turns deadly when he puts Ferris in bed with the deadly-efficient Jordanian secret police, led by the dapper, scary-intense Hani. Mark Strong does a silky, menacing Armand Assante impersonation in playing this master counter-terrorist, a man who insists on human assets, not high-tech, and man who demands that you never, ever, ever lie to him.
The bad guys are fighting, as Hoffman lectures, "men from the future" -- that is, us. And by going low-tech, not using computers or cell phones to communicate, for instance, they are staying one step ahead of the C.I.A. But Ferris, despite his differences with Hoffman, envisions a trap.
You've guessed that there's going to be a betrayal, a "side operation," and a lie. You've guessed that since it's a Leo movie, there'll be a love interest, here an Iranian-Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahan).© And if you've noticed that the script was by William "The Departed" Monahan, you know that all this lip service about men from the past avoiding cell phones is just that, lip service. Monahan is Mr. Cell-Phone-as-Plot-Device. They're a constant here, used to set up meets, set off bombs, bicker with bosses and badger divorce lawyers in the middle of an anti-terror operation.
It's not exactly a lazy prop, though you would hope Monahan is getting some sort of Sprint kickback for all the cell-plugging he's doing in his scripts.
DiCaprio's performance is amped-up in the extreme here, lots of yelling into a phone, chewing out subordinates, bobbing his head or worse, raising his eyebrows with each line. Scott's choppy editing style means that every shot is a repeat performance, with little flow between cuts. Leo works himself into a tizzy, then "ACTION," and that's what we see.
Body of Lies, adapted from a David Ignatius novel, plays like a beach book, a decent genre page-turner. We liked Syriana and The Kingdom, right? We stay with this sand-caked beach novel even if we pretty much know what's on that last page half-way through.