Though Nicholas Cage
is known for some stinkers, let's not forget one of his finer moments. 2005's Lord of War
, directed by Andrew Niccol, is no Raising Arizona
, but it makes use of Cage's stilted delivery to paint a chilling portrait of an international arms dealer.
Lord of War
is the tale of the American dream gone as wrong as possible. Yuri Orlov (Cage) and his family fled the Ukraine for Brighton Beach. After Yuri witnesses a mafia execution, he decides to change careers from chef to arms dealer. He pulls his aimless brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) into the business, which takes off quickly with a big sale in Lebanon.
While Yuri has few qualms about their work, Vitaly's conscience bothers him, aggravating his tendency to drown his problems in cheap sex and drugs. After absconding with a kilo of cocaine – pay for a sale in Columbia – Yuri checks Vitaly in for the first of several stints in rehab. Yuri, however, is eyeing Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a model he's had a crush on since he was a teenager. Rich from his weapons trade, Yuri is able to woo and wed Fontaine.
Soon, the Soviet Union dissolves, and the brothers Orlov score warehouses of military equipment from their uncle, General Dmitry Orlov (Eugene Lazarev). They make a big sale and a dangerous friend in Liberian president André Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker), an homage to former Liberian president Charles Taylor who is currently serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes.
Throughout the film, Yuri has been pursued by Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the one cop he can't bribe. As Yuri evades authority again and again, Valentine leans on Fontaine, telling her the truth about where Yuri's money comes from. In the end, Yuri loses all the people in his life – his wife and son, his parents, even Vitaly – but Valentine can't make anything stick, and Yuri stays in business.
The movie is framed as Yuri narrating his own story. Unless the movie is slowing down for a tense exchange or a telling anecdote, it's moving along at montage speed, which makes sense. But that means a lot happens very quickly – around 20 years in two hours of film – and Niccol doesn't quite have the panache to make things pop all the time. That said, Cage's opening and closing monologs are chilling, delivered in a burning village with spent rifle casings scattered across the ground.
Hawke is almost painfully heroic as Valentine; the audience wants him to win by the end of the movie. Walker has the screen presence of a large predatory cat and makes for a satisfying monster. If the movie has an emotional heart, though, it's Leto as train-wreck Vitaly. He doesn't play wounded and distraught by half-measures, nor does he understate the manic cocaine binges. But after his turn in Requiem for a Dream
, viewers would be fools to expect anything less.
But Cage knocks it out of the the park here. His delivery is either conversational or stilted and not-quite-human. Even early on, it's clear there's something wrong with Yuri Orlov. There's normal human emotion under the gun runner, somewhere, but it's buried deep, and most of what Cage builds this character from is cold and terrifying.
This is a seriously dark film about the international arms trade. The subject matter isn't taken lightly; Amnesty International actually endorsed Lord of War
for what it shows. Though the characters are fabrications, they're close enough to real people and real events, which makes the final product all the more chilling.
Lord of War
isn't an easy movie to watch, but it is well worth the emotional energy required.
Congratulations, you’re one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.