Lord of War

(Andrew Niccol, France/USA, 2005)


There are some films which obviously began with the idea for a single spectacular scene – and that would have been more impressive if left as a five or ten minute short, rather than being thinly stretched to feature length.

Andrew Niccol's Lord of War is one of these films. Its best sequence is the opening pre-credits montage, tracing the path of a single bullet (virtually from the object's own POV) from production through elaborate transportation – and eventually out of a gun and into the head of some poor anonymous victim. It is a bold sequence that makes its point more forcefully than any of the supposedly three-dimensional "human drama" that follows it.

Lord of War takes its place in a cycle of politically-conscious American films which are critical of that country's administration under George W. Bush, and especially its interventions on the global stage. The movie tells us, over and over, that America provides the arms for leaders, governments and insurgents all over the world – usually because money is all that matters, or sometimes because America needs certain conflicts to go a certain way.

Such rampant corruption requires a go-between who is politically unconscious and proudly amoral – so enter Yuri (Nicolas Cage, also one of the film's producers), the unofficial "lord of war". Yuri undergoes some scary moments when his life or his livelihood are threatened – reminiscent of the thrills experienced by the hit-squad in Munich (2005) – but his ethical conscience is never really pricked.

This is the film's big problem. Yuri is a horrible guy at the start of the film, and also at the end. Niccol is unable to invent any storyline that ever complicates or deepens our reaction to this hideous character – or, indeed, leads to any crisis in his way of living or doing business.

Of course, Niccol tries strenuously to give Yuri a character arc, principally via his marriage to a trophy wife, Ava (Bridget Monynahan), who is seemingly willing to turn a blind eye to her husband's shady dealings – but this central relationship carries so little credibility that it registers as mere time-filler to reach the feature-length mark. The presence of Yuri's brother, Vitali (Jared Leto), or his "righteous nemesis" on the other side of the law, Valentine (Ethan Hawke), add just as little to the gravity of the drama.

Niccol has long seemed like a precocious talent within the American mainstream system. Yet all his films, whether as scriptwriter (The Truman Show, 1998) or director (Gattaca [1997], S1MØNE [2002]), are lumbering high-concept projects, weighed down by the need to elaborate their over-fussy, usually rather incredible plot premises. Lord of War may have good intentions and some captivating moments, but its pieces never coalesce into a satisfying whole.

© Adrian Martin February 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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