The “Goodfellas” model for criminal rise-and-fall sagas gets yet another workout here and, will wonders never cease, yields yet another fine film. The simple but sturdy template of Martin Scorsese’s landmark gangland epic (in brief: streetwise, ambitious working-class kid climbs-to, overreaches-in and falls-from the top of seedy enterprise to the tune of generation-spanning popular music and historical-events backdrop) has been successfully wed to pornography (in “Boogie Nights”,) cocaine smuggling (in “Blow,”) and casino ownership (scorsese’s own “Casino.”) Now, in “Lord of War,” it is wed to black-market arms trafficking.
Nicholas Cage has the Ray Liotta role as Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian immigrant’s son turned illegal weapons dealer. Starting small but ever eyes-on-the-prize, Yuri struggles at first to win the respect of the top-dog traffickers but is rebuffed by gun-running “aristocrat” Simeon Weiss for being undiscerning. Weiss, played by Ian Holm, is a kind of idealist who rationalizes his criminal trade by only selling weapons to those who’s causes he believes in and supports, so Yuri goes the other way and becomes the guy who’ll sell to anybody. When the Cold War ends and (so argues the film) the world is plunged into gray-area chaos, it’s Orlov’s style that’s en-vogue and Weiss who’s suddenly, pardon the pun, very much outgunned.
Along the way, the screenplay gives Yuri the chance to hit most of the key notes from the “Goodfellas” playbook: He weds the beautiful girl, flashes cash to suspicious relatives, drags his little brother (Jared Leto) into his world, dodges a determined ATF agent (Ethan Hawke) and soon gets in over his head… or does he?
Helmed and written by Andrew Niccol, the film is well-made, well-paced and highly well acted. It’s also bleak, bitter, largely devoid of preachiness and cynical as all hell. These qualities will turn a few off, I speculate, but I found them greatly refreshing: Niccol trusts that most of us will understand already that illegal arms smuggling is wrong and doesn’t turn the film into some kind of politicized message movie: A bad guy’s crack about the 2000 U.S. elections and a title card informing us of statistics about arms dealing by UN Security Council members are the closest we come, and both are as couched in everybody-sucks cynicism as the rest of the film.
It’s also about as subtle as a jackhammer, which at first threatens to become a problem but remains fun thanks to a consistency of tone: “For What It’s Worth” plays over a sequence showing a bullet’s journey from the factory floor to a victims skull. The sound of AK-47 shells discharging morphs into a cash-register ka-ching before Yuri’s ears. A montage of cocaine use is set to, yes, “Cocaine.” This kind of go-for-broke bluntness I usually enjoy in it’s own right, but it’s great to see it working towards a better film for a change.
The film really hits it’s stride when Yuri strikes up business with African dictator Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his gold-plated AK-47 carrying psycho/cannibal son. The film’s welcome cynicism about it’s primary subject extends (perhaps even increases) to his African clientel, and the films renderings of despotic, tribalistic war zones bludgeon the glossy fable of “The Constant Gardener” with it’s saintly third world victims and guilt-ridden, martyred Westerners. Yuri’s quick-fix solution, at one point, to the imminent capture of his planeload of contraband is so strikingly un-PC I nearly clapped for joy. So many films treat the chaos in Africa (Western-made, self-made or otherwise) with such delicate gloves, terrified to render native African characters as anything but one-dimensionally noble, that it’s a real joy to see one where these characters are afforded the same dimension and moral complications as the leading-man American…
…who is, of course, an almost-completely ammoral but imminently-likable guy. As played by Cage, Orlov is the sort of character who starts out complicated and only gets moreso, but eventually can be defined by a simple trait: He does what he does because he likes being good at something. It’s villiany as a matter of pride, and like any rise-and-fall antihero worth his salt it’s both his strength and fatal flaw. You may or may not wind up rooting for him to get away with what he does, but chances are you’ll be entertained watching him try.
Time will decide if “Lord of War” gets to be as enduring as “Goodfellas” or it’s other kin. But for now, it’s an extremely good, entertaining movie very likely playing near you, and you should definately make a point to see it. Reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 9/10