Warner Bros. // 2008 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 17th, 2009
"Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to
-- Ed Hoffman
Body of Lies, based on a novel by David Ignatius, is the latest in a string of Middle Eastern action and espionage films to come out of Hollywood. Like most of those projects, it boasts some big name actors, a respected director, and heaps of violence ripped right from the headlines. The question is: is this film any different from the rest?
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator) is a CIA agent on the ground in Iraq, trying his best to work the beat and capture terrorists. His boss, a hefty Southerner named Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, American Gangster), pulls his strings from thousands of miles away in Langley, Virginia. Hoffman watches Roger's every move via unmanned spy drones in the sky, and barks orders into his hands-free headset.
When a terrorist mastermind named Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul) sets off a string of bombings across Europe, Ferris and Hoffman have to figure out who they can trust in order to capture him...and decide if they can even trust each other.
How is Body of Lies different from all the other War on Terror flicks to come out in the last year and a half? Um...well...it isn't.
Unless you count the way people use cell phones in the movie -- which, I must say, is downright ridiculous. I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio talks on his phone like it's 1996: he puts it to his ear when he's listening, and then holds it in front of his mouth when he talks. Seriously, shouldn't someone just tell him that's unnecessary? Then Russell Crowe walks around the whole time with a hands-free earbud on, but he's constantly grabbing the cord to hold the microphone part closer to his mouth. Doesn't that negate the "hands free" aspect of the phone? And the entire time both guys are on cell phones (which is like 40 percent of the movie), they're drinking black coffee nonstop. They must carry around whole satchels of antacids.
You'll have to excuse my outburst, but that kind of stuff was the most interesting aspect of the entire movie.
Cellular misuse aside, Body of Lies is a generic, self-righteous, confusing mess. The ideas and characters presented within are archetypes so overused in Hollywood right now that this feels like a parody. Sure, there's potential for a cool, modern espionage film here, but it's all squandered with unnecessary twists and confusing bureaucratic babble. William Monahan (The Departed) penned a script laden with dialogue so cheesy that it may have felt "pulpy" in a different light, but the seriousness of the film instead made it come off as hokey.
It's very possible that Monahan's lines may have been more effective with actors better suited for these roles. That's not to say anything about the acting chops of Crowe and DiCaprio -- they're both excellent, but also very miscast. Crowe's character is an ignorant, cocky, Southerner who is tied up in a mess of bureaucracy and analytics. His cheesy Texas accent resonates with a wink and a nod, and feels out of place in the cold, political world that he inhabits (or maybe that's what they were going for, either way the accent isn't believable). DiCaprio is a jaded CIA grunt who is starting to see things in shades of gray instead of black and white. But his slight accent -- and ridiculous beard -- just remind you that you're watching the guy from Titanic get bitten by dogs. Not once did these two guys succeed in immersing me in their characters' lives. Instead, I just felt like I was watching two actors try something slightly out of their range.
Not helping matters is Ridley Scott's direction, which is technically sound but lacking his usual flair. The whole movie feels phoned in -- save for a few memorably framed action sequences. The plot moves from country to country, weeks pass, and Scott seems to chug along with indifference. Rather than go in a fresh direction, or perhaps establish a unique flavor for each country, Scott sticks to what we're familiar with. At times it felt like Black Hawk Down with some borrowed sets from The Kingdom. I guess that's OK -- it certainly doesn't look bad -- but it doesn't help this movie stand out in a fairly crowded sub genre.
Body of Lies wasn't a complete disaster; in fact, it showed some brief signs of promise. About halfway through the film, Ferris comes up with the idea of creating a fake terrorist cell to out-class Al-Saleem and his cell. It's a brilliant idea for a movie, like some sort of post-9/11 Wag the Dog. Sadly, the idea is relegated to a brief subplot and acts as just another stepping stone in a complicated string of events leading to the film's third act. The same goes for the subplot involving Ferris's love interest, Aisha, who steals his heart with a rabies shot and proceeds to introduce him to her culture. If more time had been spent on these aspects, rather than having Ferris globe trot back and forth to Washington, I wouldn't have thought so hard about the different ways everyone was using a cell phone.
Ridley Scott can be, at times, a brilliant and visionary director. He gave us Alien, Bladerunner, and Gladiator after all; however, he also gave us Hannibal and Kingdom of Heaven. Body of Lies belongs in the latter category.
As far as DVDs go, Body of Lies is about as bare as they come. The video and sound are both excellent (as expected), but there are no special features whatsoever. The only tiny extra you get is a digital copy of the film. That's all. If you want special features, you'll have to spring for the two-disc edition.
The story presented in Body of Lies shows fleeting hints of originality and excitement. I could see the potential for this movie to rise above the rest and really be something unique. A fake terrorist con game sounds great. A CIA guy falling in love with Middle Eastern culture and having to choose between his mission and a lifestyle would be pretty interesting. Heck, even the tired idea of armchair generals and bureaucrats misleading veterans on the ground is solid. Yet all three of these things mixed together in this manner just tastes bad.
That said, it's totally plausible that if you haven't seen any of the other movies similar to this one, you may actually enjoy Body of Lies.
Ridley Scott has the ability to make great films. Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio have the ability to rise above the written material they're given and turn in some classic performances. In the case of Body of Lies, it's like everyone is making this movie because they felt obligated. The story comes off as generic, the few decent action scenes are spoiled with boatloads of phoned-in dialogue, and the roles are miscast.
If you actually liked this movie in the theaters, however, don't pick up this release hoping for some insightful special features. Heck, don't even pick it up looking for a trailer.
Guilty...and no, you don't get your phone call. You've had enough.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy