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Lord of War

The First Indisputably Great Film of 2005

A remarkable, audacious, near-flawless piece of filmmaking, Lord of War may just be the first great film of the year. Lord of War takes a little known, underreported subject -- the shadowy, unethical world of international arms dealers -- and delivers a satirical, polemical critique wrapped around an incisive character study. Lord of War also heralds writer/director Andrew Niccol's admission into the front rank of English-language filmmakers.

After a bravura title sequence, which follows a bullet from manufacture in a munitions factory in Eastern Europe to the end user in a desperately poor, war-torn country in Africa, Lord of War introduces the audience to the central character, Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage), an international arms dealer standing in a village ruined by war. The film then unfolds in flashback via confessional voice over narration. Lord of War then flashes back to 1982, introducing us to a young, ambitious Orlov and his family.

Yuri's father, it seems, has become what he pretended to be to enter the United States, a devout Jew. Pulling his younger brother Vitali (Jared Leto) into his plans, Yuri departs for Europe and the Middle East. From there, Yuri's career takes an upward path into wealth and power. He uses his wealth to successfully seduce a teenage crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). He openly lies to her about his career, which she initially accepts without question.

On the surface, Yuri is a respectable businessman. His parents know better. So does Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), an Interpol agent who becomes Yuri's sometime nemesis. Fast-forward to 1991: Yuri greets the collapse of the Soviet Union happily. Yuri's uncle, a general in the Ukrainian army, becomes Yuri's new business partner, helping Yuri acquire military hardware from the newly liberated Ukraine (according to the film and the press notes, more than $32 billion dollars worth of military hardware was stolen).

Yuri's business dealings also bring him face-to-face with the arbitrary and capricious dictators that riddle the developing world. Andre Baptiste, Sr. (Eamonn Walker), the "president" of Liberia (he's modeled on the former dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor), proves to be Yuri's best (and most insistent) customer, while also magnifying Yuri's worst impulses. He calls Yuri out on his ambivalence toward arms dealing (Yuri continually justifies his career with the suggestion that someone else would step into his place, and by keeping himself at a distance from the use and effects of the weapons he sells).

All this, of course, leads inevitably to a crisis of conscience, fuelled by Yuri's encounters with Valentine and his wife's increasing suspicions about his career. If, however, audiences are expecting a traditional "rise-fall-redemption" narrative, they're likely to be disappointed. Niccol delivers something completely different and, ultimately, much more satisfying -- a character study that leads into tragedy. If anything, Niccol appears to have been influenced by one of the few "true" masterpieces of the 1990s, Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas, in the structure that episodically spans several decades, an egocentric anti-hero as the central character, and voice over narration that functions as counterpoint, revealing the anti-hero's flaws, even as he's blissfully unaware of the disconnect between what he says and the reality around him.

Not surprisingly, with a charismatic, well-written character at its center, the other characters suffer in contrast, both in their respective character arcs (Ava and Vitali's especially) and their minimal, intermittent screen time. Vitali's character arc proves to be the most predictable and unsatisfying. Even with Yuri's egotism, the audience is expected to accept Yuri's decade-long inability to understand the reasons behind his brother's prolonged dissolution.

In a welcome return to form, Nicholas Cage gives a restrained, unaffected, unmannered performance, conveying Yuri's blissful amorality with seemingly effortless ease. Cage also delivers the voice over narration with a precise mix of knowing cynicism and unselfconscious humor, even when he's delivering exposition-heavy narration. Eamonn Walker deserves special mention for delivering a subtle, but nonetheless menacing, performance as the ruthless, capricious president of Liberia. Bridget Moynahan struggles in an underwritten, undermotivated role. Ethan Hawke suffers from a similar problem: his character appears only intermittently and when he does, it's to deliver a heavy-handed sermon about the evils of arms dealing.

Ultimately, Andrew Niccol's confident direction and near-brilliant writing ensure that Lord of War's flaws are minimal (and certainly forgivable), Even as Niccol delivers facts, history, and ideas into Lord of War he always adheres to universal standards for good storytelling to entertain his audience first and enlighten them second. As Lord of War ends, the last shows you a lonely, tragic figure and a title card informing the audience that the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China are the world's chief arms exporters. These five countries are also the only permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars