**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ethan Hawke
written and directed by Andrew Niccol
by Walter Chaw At times the film that Paul Brickman's brilliant screenplay for Deal of the Century promised, Aussie futurist Andrew Niccol crafts with Lord of War a sometimes transcendent, sometimes finger-wagging fable about a ridiculously successful gunrunner, Yuri (Nicolas Cage), prowling the hot spots of the Third World like a vampire in trenchcoat and shades. (I'm not convinced it wasn't the effect Niccol was going for, what with the obvious connection between spreading pestilence and feeding on death--and, of course, what with Cage's best role arguably being the quasi-vampire in Vampire's Kiss.) Without much of a narrative, even subplots concerning Yuri's mad, druggie brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and model wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan) seem like way-stations along a dotted line. Too often, the picture lives and dies on its ability to keep the pace fluid--but just that need for momentum suggests something amiss at the heart of the piece, a certain surface tension that would pop should the rock-star protagonist we envy ever collide against the satire of the kind of colossal moral vacuity required of his vocation. It's the embedded problem of what Hitchcock observed as a character we like because he does his job well: what if that job is essentially reprehensible and, moreover, what if the ultimate desire of the film is that we experience righteous repugnance?
Another rebuke of slipshod foreign policies based on capitalism and empire-building on the backs of desperate African nations, Lord of War joins films from this year like The Constant Gardener and The Interpreter. (Although it's better than both, resisting as it does the urge to make a romance its core and its politics a MacGuffin, it's crippled all the same by this desire to be admired.) I think of Niccol (S1mOne, Gattaca, The Truman Show) as a romantic, a throwback to the era of classic science-fiction where the limitless possibilities of Man were the subject, not, as is the case with so much modern science-fiction, his limitations. The tragedies used to be of Icarean ambition rather than of Oedipal introspection, and so while Lord of War, at least on the surface, appears to be the story of the rise and fall of king capitalist draped in his slick amorality, it decides by the end to be a solipsistic detective story: Oedipus solving the riddle of the king's murder to find that it's all of us. It's a point-of-view that feels especially naïve given the lengths to which Niccol goes to make Lord of War a scathing indictment of the way men rationalize away the evisceration of their better selves in the pursuit of trophy wives, Hyde Park penthouses, and borrowed ethnic identity.
The best scene involves a stripping of a downed cargo plane filmed in the kind of time-lapse generally reserved for beetles stripping a cadaver. It's fascinating for the hint of the biomechanical in its execution--a visual commentary (if only the film were free of omnipresent narration) on the essential, non-intelligent design of desperation and the insidious proliferation of ideology and technology that bespeaks an eloquence of which the rest of the picture's ham-hands prove incapable. Niccol is a very fine visual filmmaker, but he distrusts this strength, relying instead on over-scripting of the "in case you didn't catch it" variety. Case in point: the exchanges between world-weary, snake-oil sleazy Yuri and straight-arrow fed Valentine (Ethan Hawke), which, in their carefully-manufactured, infantile manner, are cozy in the way that adolescent exchanges between authority figures and rebels tend to be. The issue of the essential folly of industrialized nations supplying insurgencies deserves a more critical look (where, for instance, did the Iraqi insurgency get their weaponry? Where, for another instance, did the Japanese get the steel with which to bomb Pearl Harbor?). As it is, Yuri is less an antihero than just a hero, and the picture is less a cautionary satire than another warning come too little, too late. Lord of War is a trippy, high-budget public service announcement shot like a luxury car commercial and narrated by an A-lister with a liberal agenda but not enough artistic integrity to portray a person he despises as genuinely despicable. The problem isn't that it's controversial, but that it isn't controversial at all; pity that Lord of War is actually a pretty fair representation of the current state of America's Democratic platform: flaccid, conciliatory, and AWOL.
Hyphenate Andrew Niccol provides a nice feature-length commentary on the first disc of Lord of War's 2-Disc Special Edition*, distributed by Maple in Canada and by Lions Gate in the United States. (The labels are different but the content's identical.) It plays under a crisply-detailed, well-compressed anamorphic widescreen transfer that for no explicable reason dispenses with the Super35 film's projected aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in favour of its negative aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Less controversy surrounds the booming DTS audio, which sends bullets whizzing past the viewer from every conceivable corner of the soundstage. The DD 5.1 option is fulsome as well, but if you have the capacity click the DTS for a demonstration-quality experience.
Back to that yakker: it's dry and occasionally just a glimmer snarky (as when Niccol suggests that Jared Leto probably wouldn't have minded shooting more sex scenes). I was surprised to hear not only how low-budgeted the film was, unwanted by the major studios despite Niccol's decent track record (particularly as a screenwriter), but also how many in-camera and locale tricks were employed in crafting the illusion of a slick, globe-hopping exposé. It's interesting to me that some of the fault I found with the picture has to do with its polish--the very element that Niccol worked against all odds to produce. Niccol informs that in place of cocaine, he used vitamin B powder ("Despite the complaints of all the actors, we were probably doing them a favour") and employs a nice, deadpan self-deprecation ("Struggles of an obsessive-compulsive disorder"). Little time is given over to plot recitation and inane trainspotting; I love that he chose to drape a pivotal moment in silence because "sometimes music is used as a crutch and someone told me to just trust the scene," thus renewing my admiration for this artist I've always admired. In all honesty, it made me appreciate the film more.
Switching to the second disc yields a multitude of goodies, starting with "The Making of Lord of War" (20 mins.). Though it's the standard shuck and jive, it does feature a title graphic (the words made up of various armaments) that reminds of the promotional T-shirts plastered with the slogan "Got Guns?" across the front--a T-shirt that supposedly got a Lions Gate staffer stopped at LAX a few months before the film's release. In any case, the docu repeats a good many of the stories (including the trickery behind the stripping of a cargo plane), with graphics, from the commentary. As these things go, it's better than average, but the terms "damning" and "with faint praise" swim to mind. "Making a Killing: Inside the Arms Trade" (15 mins.) interviews various personnel from Amnesty International and suchlike ("What's the Center for Defense Information?" he asks rhetorically), who discuss the devastating impact of small arms and light weapons black market trade in conflicts around the world. I'll keep my own counsel about how much I think guns are to blame for African genocides--or any genocide--in the same way that I question the extent to which violent video games are responsible for the creation of evil. If Stalin was playing "Doom" before he buried, like, twenty million of his people in the ground, hey, I stand corrected, but since a lot of the Rwandan genocide, for instance, was carried out with machetes, then I'm thinking that while guns are problematic, and while gun runners are as low as drug dealers, the ills of the world do not begin and end with firearms. This pinhole focus might, in the final analysis, be a large part of what I disliked about Lord of War, too.
Onward, "Weapons of the Trade" highlights in exhaustive text form eight different small arms weapons from the Kaleshnikov to the RPG-7 to the Uzi, which Niccol identifies as his favourite gun--although before the film he was not, presumably, what you'd call a gun nut. "Deleted Scenes" features seven of them: one a commentary-mentioned tryst with UN peacekeepers that was meant to balance the scene of a tryst with gun-show babes; others fleshing out some of the Cage character's high-up Russian contacts; and finally a little more domestic falling-out. Clicking on "Trailers" reveals spots for Waiting..., Grizzly Man, Ultimate Avengers, The Aristocrats, A Good Woman (a spot so interminable and ill-conceived, one can only imagine what the film is like and shudder), and In the Mix. Finally, we have a 62-plus image gallery of stills from the film that made me wonder more than once what it was that I was doing with my life, sitting here counting stills from Lord of War. Originally published: March 6, 2006.
*Also available in standalone widescreen and fullscreen editions without the DTS and Director's Commentary tracks.