There is a scene about halfway into Andrew Niccol’s “Lord of War” when international arms dealer Yuri Orlov justifies his bloody profession to his younger brother Vitaly with such vigor and conviction that Vitaly can’t help but relent, replying, “My God, you’re good.” And so he is. Good at selling weapons, at lying, at faking documents, and everything else that needs to be done in order to get his weapons from point A to point B. What lies beyond point B is something Yuri doesn’t contemplate; or actually, he does contemplate it — often — he just doesn’t admit to himself that he does. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”), “Lord of War” is a cleverly told morality tale with a surprisingly creative screenplay. The direction by Niccol is so effective and trimmed of any excess that the 2-hour running time flies by in a hail of bullets.
Our anti-hero is Ukraine immigrant Yuri (Nicolas Cage), who we first meet living a pointless existence in Little Odessa, New York. Yuri has two outlets in life — pining for hometown beauty Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) and a desire to do something big with his life. After a chance encounter in a restaurant, Yuri has an epiphany — like restaurants, he reasons, people always needs guns, because people can’t seem to stop killing each other.
And so Yuri launches himself into the gun business, eventually roping his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) into the scheme. As narrated by Yuri, your first gun deal is like losing your virginity — “you don’t really know what you’re doing, and it’s over way too quick.” Yuri discovers that he has a talent for selling death (one of his clients calls him Lord of War, much to his dismay), and his life of international arms dealing takes off. Yuri’s string of successes are made on the backs of history, from the Berlin years, the never ending siege of warlords in Africa, and eventually, the fall of the Soviet Union, which ushers in a garage sale of munitions that, thanks to family ties, Yuri gets first crack at. And oh yeah, thanks to his growing supply of money, Yuri is able to romance and eventually marry the girl of his dreams, Ava Fontaine.
So goes the life and times of Yuri Orlov, narrated by Nicolas Cage in a flat, deadpan monotone (re: Cage’s normal speaking voice) that charms you at the same time as it horrifies you. The film opens with a bullet being manufactured in a factory before being shipped off to an unnamed African city, where it takes the life of a young boy standing innocently in the street during a gun battle between rival warlord factions. While it is political (Niccol continuously takes pop shots at the American Government), “Lord of War” is nowhere near as political as it could have been. The film’s failure at the box office, more than anything, seems to stem from the studio’s confusion about how to sell the movie to the public.
“Lord of War” has a tremendous and talented cast, from Nicolas Cage to Jared Leto to Ethan Hawke in the few scenes he’s in. Cage gets so under Yuri’s skin that eventually the actor is replaced by the Ukraine immigrant, a soulless man who sells guns because he’s really, really, really good at it. In another movie, Yuri would be the criminal mastermind our hero cops are trying to shut down. Yuri’s operations of deceit, bribes, and sleight of hand frustrates Interpol cop Jack Valentine (Hawke) to no end, as the man uses the letter of the law like a blunt weapon. These are all the same scenes you’ve seen in countless crime movies about cops unable to “do their job” because of “bureaucratic paperwork”. Only here Yuri is our “hero”, and the cops are the ones showing up intermittently, the way the villains usually do in movies told from the cop’s perspective.
It’s this very original take on what is essentially the tried and true cops and robbers story that makes “Lord of War” one of the most intriguing movies you’ll see in years. Is Yuri a villain? Yes, in many ways he is, but not in the sense that he abuses his wife and beats his son (he does neither of those things). Although Yes, he is a villain in that he sells guns to just about anyone and seeding war is his business. And yet, this criminal takes care of his brother, who seems to be permanently on the precipice of the abyss, and secretly buys his wife’s paintings to encourage her artistry. While he doesn’t actually seem to love his wife, he does seem to genuinely care and adore her, and in many ways, he is a good husband and father.
In perhaps the film’s most shocking, and at the same time, horribly funny scene, Yuri’s plane, which is full of guns, has been forced down in the middle of an African road by authorities. With the cops racing to reach him by car, Yuri simply opens up the plane for the Africans in the area to loot. As we watch children and mothers grab at boxes full of Ak-47s, armor-piercing bullets, and grenades like they were toys, we forget to gasp in horror at what we are seeing because Andrew Niccol has written and executed the scene with such brilliance.
It’s moments like the one mentioned above, of which “Lord of War” has in plenty, that makes Niccol’s movie different from just about every Hollywood film you’ve seen in decades. And yes, it is also brilliant, and brave, and all those other superlatives critics throw at the latest George Clooney political movie because it falls in line with their ideology. And yes, too, “Lord of War” is a must-see. Moviegoers failed to discover it in theaters, but don’t be a fool and do likewise when it hits your local video store. This is one damn good movie.
Andrew Niccol (director) / Andrew Niccol (screenplay)
CAST: Nicolas Cage …. Yuri Orlov
Bridget Moynahan …. Ava Fontaine
Ethan Hawke …. Jack Valentine
Jared Leto …. Vitaly Orlov
Shake Tukhmanyan …. Irina Orlov
Jean-Pierre Nshanian …. Anatoly Orlov
Jasper Lenz …. Gregor
Kobus Marx …. Boris