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(2005) (Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto) (R)

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Drama: A gun runner becomes the biggest arms dealer in the world while dealing with dangerous clients, bitter rivals, a government agent who's after him and trying to keep his occupation secret from his trophy wife.
After his family moved from the Ukraine to Brighton Beach and assumed a Jewish identity, Yuri Orlov (NICOLAS CAGE) was looking for an occupation that suited his personality. After witnessing an attempted gangland hit, he thinks he's found it in becoming an arms dealer, a job with seemingly endless clients around the world. Enlisting the aid of his younger brother Vitali (JARED LETO), Yuri quickly climbs through the ranks of such a vocation, hoping one day to be as big as legendary arms dealer Simeon Weisz (SIR IAN HOLM).

At his every turn, however, he must deal with Interpol agent Jack Valentine (ETHAN HAWKE) who's determined to catch Yuri in the act, but the wily arms dealer is always one step ahead of him. He's so good that he even has time to sweep model turned aspiring actress Ava Fontaine (BRIDGET MOYNAHAN) off her feet and start a family with him.

And with the end of the Cold War, Yuri realizes he can tap into a seemingly endless supply of now decommissioned Soviet munitions. With the aid of corrupt former Soviet officer Dmitri (EUGENE LAZAREV), Yuri suddenly becomes one of the biggest players in the game, arming the likes of Liberian dictator Andre Baptiste Senior (EAMONN WALKER) and his equally volatile adult son Andre Baptiste Junior (SAMMI ROTIBI).

With the money rolling in and brushing off any potential guilt regarding what the Baptistes and others do with his goods, Yuri's on top of the world. Yet, unexpected developments involving Vitali, Ava and especially Valentine soon threaten to undermine his livelihood and lifestyle.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Long before the introduction of the earliest guns, I wonder if anyone said "Clubs don't kill cavemen, cavemen kill cavemen." That's not to belittle the use of weapons to murder others, but rather to focus on the blame game regarding such matters that may or may not go all of the way back to the days of Og and his club.

Of course, back then, I doubt there were millions of dollars to be made by club or spear running as compared to today's market where, like it or not, arms dealers involve various governments including that of the good ol' USA. If that statement offends you, it might be best to skip "Lord of War," a dramatic satire of sorts that's loosely based on real events and real gunrunners.

And when the film -- that's written and directed by Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," "Simone") -- gets into its preachy mode, it's at its weakest since it's already made its points both directly and more discreetly. Yes, it's a message movie, but one that thankfully should evoke discussion on the topic rather than outright adoration or condemnation from groups polarized on either side of the gun debate.

In fashioning his tale, Niccol takes the smart route in making the main character -- who would otherwise be a stereotypical, two-dimensional villain in most other films -- an engaging and even charming personality. Yes, what he does is bad, although there are gray issues at play. Yet, this anti-hero -- especially as portrayed by Nicolas Cage ("The Weatherman," "Matchstick Men") again finding material that suits his persona and acting style -- is so imaginatively drawn that you can't help but be mesmerized by him.

In that way, he shares character traits with the likes of Henry Hill and George Jung, the appealing bad boys of "Goodfellas" and "Blow." And the comparisons don't end there as Niccol has fashioned this effort much like those efforts in that there's plenty of voice-over narration, period songs, and imaginative filmmaking choices. Yet, it also elicits the gut instinct on our part that things will eventually go wrong for the protagonist who otherwise seems to have everything going for him.

That predictable story arc might bother some viewers, as might all of the character narration which could have been truncated, although it allows the viewer to more closely see inside the main character's mindset (not to mention it also representing the film's overall snarky attitude). If there's one major flaw that bothered me the most, though, it's in the conflict-based, protagonist/antagonist relationship.

Ethan Hawke ("Assault on Precinct 13," "Before Sunset") makes for a formidable and persistent irritant to the gunrunner and his behavior, but he's shortchanged in terms of both screen time and character depth. One need only think of De Niro and Pacino in "Heat," Ford and Jones in "The Fugitive" or especially DiCaprio and Hanks in "Catch Me If You Can" to see how such character and adversarial relationships can work brilliantly and improve the material if handled just right. Niccol doesn't exactly bungle said relationship here, it's just that he doesn't nourish it like he should have.

Among other characters who get shortchanged to varying degrees are those played by Bridget Moynahan ("I, Robot," "The Recruit"), Ian Holm ("The Aviator," "The Day After Tomorrow") and to some extent Jared Leto ("Alexander," "Panic Room"). The first plays the protagonist's trophy wife who goes through the expected character arc of loving the lifestyle until figuring out what pays for it. The second plays a rival arms dealer, but that never amounts to much beyond one brief if tense meeting between the two (with one of the film's better lines of dialogue, among many that populate the script).

Leto embodies the brotherly accomplice who allows drugs to derail his criminal career path, but once that occurs, he all but disappears from the film until a return late in it. Eamonn Walker ("Tears of the Sun," "Unbreakable") and Sammi Rotibi ("Tears of the Sun," "The Wounded") are more successful as Liberian warlords who benefit from but also make the lead character's profession a risky business. Of course, this is really a star vehicle for Cage and he takes the character and runs full steam ahead with it. It's one of the actor's better and more entertaining performances of late.

The other star is the film's look where Niccol and cinematographer Amir Mokri ("Taking Lives," "The Salton Sea") have made it nothing short of visually arresting. From the real or recreated settings to an assembly line flow of a bullet's "life" (seen from the ammo's point of view from start to deadly finish), the film is a blast, pun intended, to watch at each and every moment.

Not perfect, but better than average, "Lord of War" proves its aim is mostly true and that it's not just shooting blanks at the subject matter. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 25, 2005 / Posted September 16, 2005

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