Andrew Niccols' latest film rolls out the carpet for its supposed antihero, illegal arms dealer Yuri Orlov (played by Nicolas Cage). When Yuri first appears onscreen, he's standing on countless glistening bullets, so many of them that they gleam like a sumptuous, golden rug. He's a true Lord of War , the image says, a dirty prince who has made his fortune by peddling death.
Niccols underscores that point by following the path of one of Yuri's bullets as it slowly wends its way from a case in eastern Europe to the muzzle of a gun fired in a street shoot-out in Africa to -- zingingly fast and thrilling now, arching over the dirt streets and through a tattered house -- bang, the forehead of a nameless young African boy.
As its opening attests, Niccols' film traffics in stylishly violent images -- a somewhat awkward conundrum, as the director is trying to deplore the careless, capitalist cult of violence, the dehumanizing nature of gunrunning itself, as Niccols and a few of his cast made clear at a special screening in Washington, D.C. Perhaps he's compensating for salting the film with innumerable factoids about the illegal small-arms trade. All those slickly packaged statistics: In the end, Lord of War feels like a public-service announcement filmed by a music-video director. Those guns are bad; now where's the Cristal at?
Niccols' film draws inevitable comparisons to The Constant Gardener, as both have as their targets the effects of unscrupulous capitalism and ham-fisted foreign policy on poor African nations. But while The Constant Gardener succeeds in drawing viewers in to the lives of the white people who confront these dilemmas (if not those of the black people who die from them), Lord of War keeps its audience at a distance, buried in factoids or bustled from one glamorously grimy locale or crackpot dictator to another.
The film's main character is supposed to provide the necessary heft. Yuri is a charming, witty, knowing but self-delusional type, a man who acquires all the trappings of success: the trophy wife, the cavernous New York City penthouse, the jet planes -- all of it a great fanfare announcing nothing but his moral emptiness. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, he grows up in Brighton Beach, watches a hit go down, and soon finds himself enraptured with the power and the money of selling guns. Yuri eventually breaks into the big time after he hits up an old uncle who oversees a stockpile of weapons in Ukraine (the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a free-market run on arms caches in the region), then starts running those arms to the highest bidders all over the world -- African despots, Chinese generals, the lot.
Yuri's character is a composite of five real-life arms dealers, Niccols told the audience at the Washington screening. And indeed, his life unreels like a top-10 list of gunrunning escapades culled from their lives: the time when he had to disguise a ship, that other time when he nearly got shot, etc., all of it narrated in Cage's relentless mumble, wearing the audience down like water on stone. The actor gets a workout all right -- loose limbs flapping about in his vampire trench coats, gums gleaming, under-eye bags doing their hangdog best -- but he doesn't succeed in making his character truly complex, or truly disturbing. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, are little more than props: the tearful ex-model wife (Bridget Moynihan), the sensitive but coke-addled brother (the aggressively eyelashed Jared Leto), the tireless Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) who drops by to retch up chunks of information or to engage in knockoff grand inquisitions. So despite its zippy pace and stylish visual sensibility, the movie drags; we aren't really invested in the moral problems or degradations of its central figures.
A feature that aims to impart as much information as a documentary, Lord of War winds up being neither, doomed by its ambivalence. Is Yuri good or bad? Are these guns hideous or sort of hot? The film tries to shake up these moral categories, but not in any startling way; it's too busy to make its point to depict believable characters, black or white, victim or self-deluding perpetrator. Niccols and his cast are clearly dedicated to raising awareness about the scourge of small-arms trafficking -- a laudable goal, and one that has created a handsome and even intermittently entertaining film. Hopefully they'll remember to put the man alongside their message next time.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.