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Terror incognito

Body of Lies


Failure of imagination: In Body of Lies, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe plot the War on Terror.
  • Failure of imagination: In Body of Lies, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe plot the War on Terror.

Body of Lies (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown

Throughout David Ignatius' 2007 novel Body of Lies, you can feel the potential for creating something ... deeper. While the surface markings were those of an age-of-terrorism espionage thriller, there were also hints of Mystic River author Dennis Lehane the portrayal of a world in which moral decision-making was virtually impossible, and the best a soul could hope for was to make the least immoral decision. But whenever these ideas seemed ready to bubble over into something seriously probing, Ignatius would fall back on over-plotted genre convention.

Director Ridley Scott's adaptation working from a script by William Monahan (The Departed) at times teases with the same promise of piercing insight into a no-win situation. And while the film strips away much of the fat from Ignatius' storytelling, it also winds up frustratingly superficial. It's a nuts-and-bolts action drama putting on the undercover persona of something with a message.

Not that it isn't fairly successful as an action drama. Scott plunges into the story of Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a CIA field agent working on the ground to recruit "assets" secret operatives within terrorist groups in Iraq. But he always seems to be working at cross purposes with his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), an impatient hawk who barrels in with guns and attitude blazing where others fear to tread.

This clash becomes a particular problem once Ferris begins an assignment in Jordan to find Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), the secretive terrorist leader responsible for a series of bombings in Europe. And this mission will require Ferris to work with Hani (Mark Strong), the Jordanian intelligence director with no fondness for typical American pushiness.

Monahan's structural tweaks mostly serve to streamline the narrative, including his removal of most of the material involving Ferris' strained marriage and, curiously, the undercover operation that gave the novel its title. But he also beefs up the role of Hoffman for Crowe who is, in turn, beefed up to play the jowly bureau chief. And Crowe does a fine job as a guy who makes life-or-death decisions a world away via his cell phone while standing on the sidelines at his daughter's soccer game.

Meanwhile, Ferris' efforts put him in the way of human shrapnel, angry dogs and the business end of a ball-peen hammer. After 128 minutes spent with Roger Ferris, I can't really say that I understand what makes him tick.

It's fortunate, then, that Body of Lies can at least tick along as a tense little thriller. Scott knows how to wrangle nervous energy out of both bullet-riddled chases and silent waiting, and he's never been shy about using a little excruciating damage to a human body to make a point. Monahan's script maintains a clean, crisp trajectory through the narrative, and finds enough space for even the clash of wills between Ferris and Hoffman to drive the action.

What Body of Lies is missing, however, is a broader sense of consequence. It's a story that often seems poised to tell us more about why the War on Terror has turned into such a quagmire, then retreats to the relative safety of explosions and shouting matches. Like Ignatius' novel, the film version of Body of Lies winds up sidestepping the thorniest questions observing, like Hoffman, from too safe a remove.

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