Lord of War is a movie with a message. There isn’t anything wrong with that, and there can be a great deal right with it, especially if in the process of delivering that message, the movie tells us something true and worthwhile about the issues involved, and entertains us along the way. The message of Lord of War is that guns are bad, people who sell them are even worse, and that international arms dealers are to blame for much of the carnage and horror in the world, because they give bad people the means to kill other people, usually with the connivance of the American government.
Whatever one may think of that message, the fact is that Lord of War fails to clear the first hurdle of a message movie. It doesn’t entertain. The problem is that Director Andrew Niccol, who also wrote the screenplay, can’t stop being appalled by his characters long enough to show us very much of the world they inhabit, and he’s too busy being glib and cynical to show us very much of how the movie’s main character actually does what Niccol finds so appalling.
The main character is Yuri Orlov, played with considerable restraint by Nicolas Cage. The Orlov family escapes from the Soviet Union in the 1970s by pretending to be Jewish, and settle in Brighton Beach, where the elder Orlov (Jean-Pierre Nshanien) continues to attend synagogue. Their eldest son Yuri lacks direction in his life. After witnessing a mob hit, he realizes that there is a fortune to be made supplying people with the means to kill other people, and decides to go into the illegal weapons business. So he starts going to synagogue like his father (Which is apparently how one makes contact with the illegal arms trade in Brighton Beach.), and in no time he has begun a meteoric career as a merchant of death.
Niccol has considerable skill as a director, and sets up some clever scenes, including an opening sequence that follows the history of a bullet, from manufacture to being fired into the brain of an African boy. But he isn’t really interested in showing the audience the nuts and bolts of the international arms trade. He’d much rather take cheap shots at America, particularly American conservatives. Yuri obtains his first lot of weapons by buying up a mountain of M-16s that America supposedly abandoned after its war in Lebanon. (?!) We see him making payoffs to a shadowy American Colonel who intervenes on Yuri’s behalf at various times in the movie. Just to make sure we know who the real villains are, Niccol refers to “Colonel Oliver Southern”, an obvious dig at Oliver North. At one point, Yuri smuggles weapons aboard a freighter named the Kristol, an apparent reference to conservative journalist William Kristol.
Lord of War suffers from way too many subplots, none of which are fully developed, and several of which interfere with the business of describing Yuri’s illicit dealings. One of these involves Yuri’s brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), who acts as Yuri’s business partner before becoming addicted to cocaine. Another involves an Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke who is determined to bring Yuri down, but never can succeed because he isn’t willing to bend the rules. This ought to generate some suspense, but doesn’t, because Niccol makes it clear that Hawke can never succeed because... well he just can’t, and it’s all America’s fault anyway. After a while the whole business starts to look a bit like the Coyote and the Road Runner, but a lot less entertaining.
The most time consuming subplot in the movie involves Yuri’s relationship with his trophy wife, (Bridget Moynahan), a gorgeous former model and failed actress that Yuri has admired for years, and pursues once his business takes off. The scenes in which Cage woos Moynahan are actually the best in the movie. (Perhaps Niccol should have made this a romantic comedy instead.) But after they’re married, Ms Moynahan’s character stops being a character and simply becomes a walking inconsistency in the plot. On the one hand, we’re told that she realizes Yuri millions come from some sort of shady dealings and doesn’t care, but on the other hand her objections to Yuri’s gunrunning become a major plot point later in the movie. Perhaps the character was meant to change over time, but Ms Moynahan, herself a former model of limited acting ability , can’t quite carry it off. As it stands, the character’s reaction to Yuri’s business varies according to the needs of the plot.
Yuri boasts of having sold weapons to “every army except the Salvation Army”, and explains that he didn’t sell guns to Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan “Not because of any moral considerations. In those days he was always bouncing checks”. Spends a good deal of time on Yuri’s business dealings with a Liberian warlord names Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) loosely based on Charles Taylor. Walker, who practically steals the show with a delightful performance, does a convincing and menacing African dictator with more than touch of the absurd. (His son, played to perfection by Sammi Rotibi, is genuinely terrifying.) With people like this running around loose, it’s hard to really blame Yuri for the ills of Liberia. At one point, while Yuri is selling them guns, we see two of their henchmen hacking up a mother and child with machetes in the background. With or without Yuri’s help, these fiends are going to rack up a high body count, and this takes some of the edge of Niccol’s intended message. And even here, it isn’t clear who Niccol hates more, Baptiste or George W Bush. (At one point, Baptiste gloats over news of the Florida recount, saying that now the UN can’t give him a hard time for rigging elections.)
Lord of War might have been a much better movie if Niccol had taken out some of the subplots, especially the ones dealing with Yuri’s family life, and spent more time on Yuri actually dealing guns. (Yuri never seems to have any sort of organization behind him. All we ever see is Yuri himself.) He might also have given more screen time to Walker and Rotibi. It would also have helped the movie’s credibility if Niccol had ever bothered to take note of the fact that America is not the only country that exports arms, and that other nations have sold, and are selling considerable amounts of military hardware to people who really shouldn’t have it. Lord of War fails both as a character study and as an exploration of the international arms trade. But if you really, really hate George Bush, you’ll probably love it.