Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War is an unsettling look that a lot of people don’t know much about: illegal arms trafficking. How many movies take you through the title credits while making your viewpoint that of a bullet. You go through the entire life cycle of the bullet, conception all the way until it’s fired and eventually hits a target, and once you realize that the target is a child, the film has grabbed you. You’re captivated and you’re willing to sit through it for the rest of its running time, simply to see to what extent it will to in order to prove its point.
The lead goes to Nicolas Cage, reminding us why he’s an Oscar winner, playing a man named Yuri Orlov. He’ll also provide our narration, in case you were wondering what he’s always thinking. The story begins early on, detailing how Yuri, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, ended up selling guns and other weaponry to “every army but the Salvation Army.” We eventually build up to where you expect it to go: His job gets into the way of his life; some people get hurt, even those who are innocent; he’s chased down by an Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke); and a whole bunch of other crazy things happen. Let’s not spoil the surprise.
Yes, the film condemns this type of illegal profession, and the act of doing it. You’re not going to get some moral ambiguity from the filmmakers. From the characters, though? Yeah, I suppose you could say that some of them aren’t dead-set in their beliefs. Even Yuri, the character we know more intimately than anyone else, has differing opinions on each aspect of his chosen career.
For instance, there’s a time in which he goes clean, at the request of his wife and muse, Ava (Bridget Moynahan). He’s drawn back into the trafficking world, as you’d expect, but you’ll have a hard time fully grasping why. Is it simply that legal trading doesn’t have high enough margins? Or is it because he enjoys the adrenaline rush? Or perhaps because, after all his life, he’s found the one thing that he’s genuinely good at. You can’t just give it up just like that.
The thing about Yuri is that he’s smart and he always has a plan for whatever comes up. Much of the film’s tension comes from when Hawke’s agent tries to catch him, or when the businessmen he’s dealing with — people who are scary, always come with armed guards, and could easily pick up the weapon he’s selling and shoot him dead — start to get emotional. Watching him worm his way out of these situations is a joy, even though you want him to be caught. He’s assisting the killing of children, after all! How can you root for this person?
You do because he’s an interesting individual, one who cares for his family — including his brother and initial partner, Viatly (Jared Leto). He’s morally complex, has enough depth to keep you intrigued, and he’s wickedly smart. He’s also quite funny, as you find out through his black comedy narration style. You might not laugh a lot during Lord of War, but when you do, you’ll feel bad afterward; it’s that kind of humor.
You’ll meet some fun people throughout the film, like a surprise appearance from Ian Holm as one of Yuri’s rivals in the arms dealing business, or Eamonn Walker as the President of Liberia, but for the most part, we focus on Yuri. He’s our connection to the events in the film, and it’s his word that we wait for. We end up growing to like the charismatic individual, even though we hate what he’s doing. He might hate what he’s doing, too, although he becomes so entrenched in the culture that it eventually doesn’t matter. He’s too good at it and he likes the feeling of being good at it.
The only problem Lord of War has is that its character study and condemnation of the illegal arms trade is about all it has going for it. The plot is all over the place, spanning a couple of decades, all of the other characters are underdeveloped, and it never does a whole lot more than target arms trafficking as a bad thing that you shouldn’t do. I suppose it raises awareness as well, but how many people are going to be oblivious to the existence of people illegally supplying other people with weapons? My guess is not many.
Nicloas Cage is very strong in the leading role, fierce and intense as he can be. There’s no over-the-top performance here; he’s grounded firmly in reality, even more so than Jared Leto’s cocaine addict or Ethan Hawke’s too-good-to-be-true Interpol agent. Hawke is actually very underused here, only having a handful of scenes, most of which have him giving a long monologue berating what Yuri is doing, but then letting him go because Yuri is too smart for him.
Lord of War is a funny, smart movie about arms trafficking, while also being a deep character study on its lead trafficker played well by Nicolas Cage. It’s nothing more than that, and a greater emphasis on everything going around Cage’s character and his profession would have been nice, but for what it is, Lord of War works. It’s not exactly a fun watch, save for the sprinkles of black comedy scattered throughout, but if it raises awareness and gives you an interesting viewing experience, I suppose it does its job well.