In the early 1980s, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) discovers that his true calling in life is to sell guns. And sell them he does. The son of a Russian immigrant family, Orlov uses his uncanny business instincts and flair for salesmanship to become one of the world's most important, and illegal, arms suppliers. He uses his vast earnings to seduce the woman of his dreams (played by Bridget Moynahan), while unwittingly destroying her life as well as that of his brother (played by Jared Leto) with his chosen profession. All the while, a dedicated Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) pursues him across the globe.
It has been said that with regard to cinema, everything's been done. Although this would often appear to be the case, it seems as if writer-director Andrew Niccol has hit upon something new here. Although there have films about mid-level criminals before (the films of Martin Scorsese come to mind), Niccol's Lord of War is the first film whose primary topic is international illegal gunrunning in the past quarter-century. Niccol takes full advantage of this fact, peppering the script with fascinating, and at times horrifying, truths. He realizes that much of his audience knows little about the intricacies of illegal gunrunning, and much like Scorsese's Casino or the recent City of God, part of the fun of the film is learning how the system works.
The film could easily have turned into what we all too often see- an original idea tacked onto a cliched narrative. Not so here. The script is brazenly original not only in terms of content, but also in its approach to the material. For so serious a subject, the film is remarkably lighthearted. Many funny moments are expertly written into various scenes; unlike many other films, the humor grows out of the situations rather than being shoehorned into them. And although the film has its share of comedy, it maintains a truly admirable balance of tone. The film is both highly entertaining and very serious. Niccol makes no attempt to gloss over the more rotten aspects of Orlov's profession; it's all there for the viewer to see. Orlov's way of life has several particularly devastating long-term effects on his brother. As is to be expected, Jared Leto's performance here is brilliant. The other actors do fine work, and Nicolas Cage is his usual good self.
It is my belief that Niccol's script is one of the strongest to come out of a mainstream production in quite some time; its unique subject matter jeopardizes its chances at being a workable film, but it succeeds astonishingly well- it is an original concept with an original approach that manages to maintain a finely balanced tone, humanizing all of its characters and presenting multiple points of view, while educating the viewer and remaining massively entertaining. The film's political message is a blunt one, but Niccol doesn't hit us over the head; he lets the images speak for themselves.
A word must be said about the visuals. Niccol and his cinematographer, Amir M. Mokri (who also lensed the visually accomplished Bad Boys II), have worked wonders here. Every single shot of this picture is aesthetically pleasing. Niccol uses wide shots a good deal more than many other directors, and he employs them to great effect. His trademark filters are very much on display here, filling the frame with beautiful saturated blues and yellows. There are also a number of great telephoto close-ups. Niccol's compositional sense is stunningly good; the scope frame is used to its absolute full potential here. It is rare to see a content-driven film so visually stimulating. Niccol's use of CGI is also worth noting. This film is an example of how computer graphics ought to be used- creatively and only when necessary. The sheer ingenuity of the opening credit sequence- a single, unbroken shot following a bullet from its creation to its final purpose, from its point of view, played against Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth"- is staggering. Niccol has a strong sense of how music works with an image.
Lord of War is a rare breed of film, one that hardly ever gets made- a sizable production about a relatively little-known topic, aimed at no demographic in particular, that fires on all cylinders and is consistently intelligent and entertaining. This is one of the best films released so far this year. - Review by Nathan Voss
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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