The movie Lord of War starts with a bang. The camera travels down a conveyor belt, as in the opening shot of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory . Except this American factory isn’t making a candy bar; it’s making a bullet. Through computer graphics and compositing, we follow the bullet into a crate. The crate is opened by Russian soldiers. Soon, the bullet winds up in the dumping grounds of the industrialized nations: in Africa. Lodged in the brain of a child.
The opening sequence tells you everything about the movie to follow. The sequence, and the movie, don’t look convincing. But they’re audacious — and that’s all too rare in American films these days. Here’s a movie that takes you to Beirut, Bolivia, St. Barts, and Bosnia – and that’s just the B’s. Like the recent film The Constant Gardener , Lord of War travels down the corridors of corruption to show you the whole cynical system.
Nicolas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukranian immigrant whose family, in the 70′s, posed as Jews to escape the Soviet Union. Judaism rubbed off on his father, who teaches, "Remember, Son, there is someone above you." His brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto), puts up a sign in the kitchen of the family restaurant that reads, "Beware of dog". "It’s a reminder to beware of the dog in myself," Vitaly says.
Yuri isn’t interested in the restaurant trade. "The problem with an honest buck," he says, "is the margins are too low; everybody’s doing it." So he twists his brother’s arm, and they run guns for such pretty customers as Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker). They’d sell to Osama bin Laden, but his checks bounce. Yuri isn’t bothered when a village is massacred right in front of him with his own AK-47′s.
African warlords pay the brothers off in "conflict diamonds," also called "blood diamonds". A Columbian dictator pays them in coke, and Vitali becomes an addict. "Why don’t you stop?" Yuri demands. But the worse addict is Yuri. Addicts don’t hold themselves responsible; their choices make themselves.
Lord of War is a fussy, writerly movie. The satire abrades, but doesn’t break the skin. It was made by Andrew Niccol. Though he did a nice job directing his own Gattaca , his work is probably best interpreted by others. What Lord of War needed was a director like David Mamet, who can set elements in tense relationship, like a Japanese tea ceremony.
I gave a positive review to the movie Crash , also by a writer who shouldn’t be directing. I’ll also give a nod to Lord of War . These movies, while creaky, at least have conscience and ambition. I’ll go for mediocre art that has this much to say. As the poet Robert Browning said: "Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?"
Lord of War is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.