Andrew Niccol’s “Lord of War” is a cry of outrage in the form of a political thriller. It’s also a bitterly funny portrait of a planet so consumed with self-destructive behavior that global suicide seems inevitable.
“Evil prevails,” says the narrator and central character, a spectacularly successful gun-runner named Yuri Orlov, who supplies leftover Cold War weapons to any homicidal dictator who can come up with the right amount of cash, diamonds or cocaine.
But even Yuri is a piker compared to the arms-happy governments that distribute most of the world’s weapons. In a finale that recalls the ending of Charles Chaplin’s darkest comedy, “Monsieur Verdoux,” Yuri proposes that murder is the logical extension of business.
He’s also learned to live with it, even if it eventually robs him of all that’s dear. Played by Nicolas Cage, who brings a cranky deadpan flair to the role, Yuri is sometimes joined on his criminal adventures by his more conscientious brother, Vitali (Jared Leto), whose weakness for drugs lands him in rehab on a regular basis.
Their chief competition is a veteran gun-runner, Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), who underestimates the brothers and is eventually forced to compete with them on their terms. Nothing is denied Yuri, who acquires a stunning trophy wife, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who at first is only too willing to believe the lies he tells her about the reasons for his success.
Niccol, a New Zealander who wrote “The Truman Show” and wrote and directed “Gattaca,” casts his “Gattaca” star, Ethan Hawke, in the crucial role of Valentine, a determined Interpol agent who is always on Yuri’s tail. Because he won’t bend the rules or break them, Valentine passes up opportunities to corner Yuri and jail him.
He’s as committed to the rule of law as Yuri is committed to delivering those weapons to tyrants who can afford them. As they repeatedly outwit each other, a cat-and-mouse game develops that, given the players and their powers and connections, can end in only one way.
“Lord of War” (the title is a dictator's variation on “warlord”) is Niccol’s most ambitious and riveting film to date, though it does have its flaws. Aside from Cage’s springy performance, the characters are thinly drawn; even Holm and Hawke have little to do but steer the plot. The use of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” on the soundtrack is less than fresh. The same could be said of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which recently seemed just as uncomfortable on the soundtracks of "Saint Ralph" and "The Edukators."
But if the script could use some fleshing out, Niccol’s direction is frequently inspired. He’s particularly good at moving ships and planes around and finding ways to have Cage pitch Yuri’s self-justifying monologues directly to the audience.
One extended time-lapse sequence, in which Yuri’s plane is dismantled by scavenging natives in an African desert, is simply breathtaking. And it’s not just a visual flourish. Moments like this underline the film’s concerns with inequality, violence-fueling poverty and violence-sustaining wealth. As Yuri warns, “the real weapons of mass destruction” are already here.