Lionsgate // 2005 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // January 30th, 2006
The first and most important rule of gun-running is: never get shot with your own merchandise.
Lord of War is the newest movie from the high-concept writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Simone). Niccol had the misfortune of finishing his script, which chronicles the flow of heavy weaponry into third world countries, shortly after the Iraqi had begun. Due to the subject matter, every studio in Hollywood rejected the script out of hand. Undaunted, Niccol, along with French film producer Philippe Rousselet, managed to cobble together $50 million exclusively from foreign financers, making Lord of War one of the most expensive films ever to be financed outside the Hollywood system. So the obvious question is: was it all worth it?
Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage, The Weather Man) is the son of poor Ukrainian immigrants and lives in a squalid section of Brooklyn's Little Odessa. After witnessing an attempted mob rub-out in his neighborhood, Yuri finds himself suddenly drawn to weaponry. Infused with an entrepreneurial spirit, Yuri enlists the help of his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, Panic Room) in distributing small arm shipments to dictators, terrorists and freedom fighters around the world. The money is good, and the fringe benefits are great, but Yuri does not run arms for material gain. He does it because he's so damn good at it.
Along the way, he marries a supermodel, his brother goes crazy, and a CIA agent (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset) becomes obsessed with taking Yuri down. Oh, and he's also doing regular business with Andre Baptisse (Eamonn Walker, Duma), the genocidal dictator of Liberia who will kill his own toadies for minor infractions. What could possible go wrong?
I usually groan when people talk about the need for "sympathetic characters." One of the few principles of storytelling that unites creative writing teachers and Hollywood moguls is the importance of sympathetic characters. I tend to disagree. Some of the most compelling characters in fiction are horrible people who do immoral things. One need not be sympathetic to be captivating (one of the best illustrations of this is David Thewlis' brilliant performance as the psychotic Johnny in Mike Leigh's masterpiece Naked). Still, halfway through Lord of War I realized that I didn't care about Yuri. I didn't care when a warlord pointed a gun at him. I didn't care when the F.B.I. was on his tail. And I certainly didn't care when his wife threatened to leave him. And without any sympathy for Yuri, who is in every scene of the movie, Lord of War ends up surprisingly uninvolving.
As much as I hate to admit it, part of the reason I didn't care about Yuri is because he's a heartless bastard. I'm not just saying that because he's a gunrunner (though that doesn't endear him to me, either). There is something about cinema that makes us very forgiving of even the most reprehensible behavior. If a character is passionate, or funny, or even occasionally does the right thing, we can forgive most any transgression. Yet Lord of War not only fails to elicit any empathy for Yuri, it doesn't even seem to try.
There are scenes of Yuri doing business in the middle of a Liberian war zone, watching 12-year old child soldiers being executed with his own weapons. To his credit, Yuri will usually pause and wrinkle his face in concern, but that's it. There is no soul searching. No guilt. Yuri doesn't change. He continues selling to warlords and dictators. And kids keep on killing kids.
Yuri uses large amounts of his gunning spoils to impress Ava (Bridget Moynahan, I, Robot), a fashion model he had been in love with since he was a child. After some expensive wooing, Ava marries Yuri and they have a child together. At this point in the movie it is clear Yuri has no compunction selling arms that he knows will be used to exterminate a village of defenseless women and children. Yet there is still hope for him. Perhaps his love for Ava, or his son, will empower him to change his life. Instead, he cheats on his wife with a Ukrainian waitress while on a business trip. He doesn't feel any guilt about this. At least none that we see. Apparently, his family doesn't mean much to him, either.
After nearly two hours with Yuri, we still don't know much about him expect that he has little respect for the law. Other then occasional looks of concern, and gruff justifications for his job, there is no character development. Halfway through the film there is a scene where Baptisse uses one of Yuri's showcase firearms to shoot one of his toadies for ogling a lady from his harem. Yuri screams in horror. When Baptisse looks at him disapprovingly, Yuri grabs back his gun and explains that he now has to sell it as a used firearm. This is certainly a funny exchange. But it is also indicative of the movie's biggest problem. We don't know if Yuri is hiding his shock to avoid Baptisse's wrath, or if he is only outraged over the unauthorized use of his gun.
There are also problems with Yuri's younger, ne'er-do-well brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, Panic Room). Specifically, the problem lies with Leto himself. Vitaly is the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and works as a cook in a run-down Little Odessa greasy spoon. With all the difficulty Nicolas Cage has passing for an Eastern European, it would have been wise to cast an actor with Slavic features to play his brother. Instead they cast Leto, whose pretty boy good looks -- and middling talent -- undermine Vitaly's heritage, his profession, and nearly every straight line the character speaks. In the midst of an otherwise compelling scene where a group of child soldiers are lined up for execution in the Liberian desert, Leto begins pining for cabbage and potatoes. I don't know if the line would have worked if it had been spoke by Peter Skaarsgard (or any other young actor with presence), but it certainly wouldn't have sounded ridiculous.
The missteps in characterization and casting are especially unfortunate because Lord of War's promising premise. In the making-of documentary included in this two-DVD set, Cage explains that he was drawn to the film because he had never read a script about international gunrunning (as opposed to the more commonly depicted international drug trade). Certainly there is a great film to be made about gun trafficking. In addition to the cinematic shots of heavy weaponry in action, beautiful vistas of northern Africa, and an introduction to a mysterious intransient world, there must be some great stories to tell. In fact, there are so many ethical and legal considerations, not to mention the sheer danger involved, that life of an international gunrunner has enough drama to fuel five seasons of an hour-long series, much less a 120-minute movie. That is the problem with Lord of War. Niccol worked so hard to squeeze everything he knew about gunrunning into one movie, there was scant time left to actually learn anything about the gunrunner himself.
Lionsgate has done a commendable job putting together this two-disc Special Edition DVD set. The picture is clear, vibrant, and a great showcase for the film's disparate locales. The sound is phenomenal. There's plenty of machine gun fire and explosions in this movie, and if those are your kind of thing, this would be a great showcase for a new surround sound system. Among the supplements, there is the standard making-of featurette, some uninspiring deleted scenes, and "Making a Killing," an interesting 25-minute documentary on the international arms trade. Many of the talking heads in the documentary just confirm assertions made in the movie, but it is still worthwhile for anyone whose interest was tickled by Lord of War. There is also a commentary track by Andrew Niccol. While he spends some of the commentary acting as a tour guide ("We shot this here in South Africa...this was the Czech Republic"), it is interesting to hear him discuss how the unconventional financing came together to complete Lord of War (several times he admits that he has no idea who the people are that are credited as "producers" of his movie).
(Editor's Note: Though Judge Babish finds much to praise in the video presentation, it has been modified from its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It's not known at press time if this was the director's decision, or a choice made by Lionsgate. Either way, this is information you should keep in mind when making your purchase.
Great visuals. Great sound. Great premise. Unfortunately Lord of War still manages to fall flat.
Judge Babish would like to commend Andrew Niccol for his original ideas and inspiring ability to fundraise. Yet I have no choice but to find the movie guilty of underdeveloped characters and ill-advised casting.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making a Killing: Inside the International Arms Trade
* The Making of Lord of War
* Director Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Weapons of the Trade
* Official Site