Ukrainian immigrant Yuri (Nicolas Cage) is bored with his life in Little Odessa, and is looking to jumpstart his fortunes. Turning to the highly lucrative world of arms dealing, Yuri finds he has a gift for the business, taking himself and younger brother (Jared Leto) to the top of the game. Finding himself with incredible wealth, the girl of his dreams (Bridget Moynahan), and at the call of every warlord around, Yuri slowly loses himself and his ethics in the selling of chaos. When Interpol agents (including Ethan Hawke, great in a tiny role) come sniffing around, and his relationship with a volatile Liberian leader turns sour, Yuri must confront his criminal life, and question whether he can leave it behind.
Filmmaker Andrew Niccol's "Lord of War" (IMDb listing) opens on a decidedly provocative note; a film detailing weapon trafficking, the picture opens with Yuri standing proudly on a sea of spent bullet casings, stretching as far as the eye can see. Following the introduction to our "hero," Niccol's camera imagines the journey of a single bullet, from the factory floor to the bloodied head of a pre-teen soldier fighting in Africa, in a CG-enhanced montage that's about as perfect a directorial move one could make with this dicey material. "Lord of War" announces right from the start that it has something to say, with the inventiveness and an actual budget to back it up.
In fact, "War" is crowded with crisp, imaginative visuals, which Niccol ("Gattaca," "Simone") mounts with unusual aplomb. Following Yuri through his 20-year journey as he rises from common criminal to respected trafficker, Niccol and his production crew take every occasion to show off some potent visual flair, padded with terrific CG work. One of the more striking moments of the film comes as a handcuffed Yuri sit in the desert and watches, through time-lapse photography, the immediate dismantling by the African locals of the cargo plane that he arrived on. "War" is a customary journey from poverty to criminal opulence, but Niccol's attention to detail perks up the screenplay, and constantly strengthens the ideas that he's frantically trying to communicate.
The casting of Nicolas Cage also aids Niccol's blueprint for "War." Back in dynamic mode after sleepwalking through "National Treasure," Cage coolly plays Yuri's rise to prominence, always making sure to underline his professionalism, loyalty, and cancerous doubt whenever he can. Though backed by a fine supporting cast, this is Cage's film, and he lives up to the promise of the role beautifully, skillfully weaving through conflict and opportunity like a used car salesman, but burdened with the soul of a pacifist. It's a complex role, daring the actor to play a greedy scumbag with sympathetic leanings and Cage is one of the few actors around who can pull off that treacherous character structure.
The trouble that eventually befalls "War" is the same that is found in a similar political excursion, "The Constant Gardener." Both productions have noble intentions and try to convey the message that corruption and death lie all around us, but both films also have a higher dramatic promise to service, which they abandon to preach when all subtlety has failed them. Niccol, after having been so crafty selling his world of greed and dishonesty, finally relents and sends the Hawke character in to spit out some numbers on the gun trade. Admirable? Important? Of course. But also clumsy and deflating. "War" is burly enough to handle the points being hammered, and it didn't need a rest to spell things out.
"Lord of War" is such a rarity: a message-minded semi-satire with a budget, that it's worth a recommendation, if only for the fact that it exists in today's play-it-safe cinema marketplace.
Filmfodder Grade: B