The opening moments of Andrew Niccol's Lord of War (Lions Gate Films) are pure filmmaking bliss: creative, enthralling, and filled with an energy that isn't matched in the remaining two hours and change. Here, the viewer is thrown headlong into the metallic casing of a bullet manufactured in Russia, and follows it, first-person, from ship to dock to firearm and finally into the skull of a young boy. It's a virtuoso sequence set to Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," one of the most memorable war-protest songs of the 1960s. This combination of word and image, while not exactly affecting, is nothing if not impressive: it's play No. 1A out of the Scorsese Handbook.
The problem is, like the opening sequence, the film never scratches below the surface of technical competence. It's all show and no soul. Writer/director Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne) tries to mask his bland characters leading unconventional lives with quick cuts, exotic locations, and catchy music (aside from Springfield, "Money" and "Cocaine" are conjured at exceedingly predictable moments throughout the film), but to no avail. This is Blow (2001)another boring film about boring people dealing illegal products across multiple continents, set to a classic rock/synth-pop soundtrackwith guns. Excuse me while I yawn.
Niccol's screenplay follows the exploits of Uri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a composite of a number of prominent, real arms dealers who made a killing (so to speak) in Africa and eastern Europe during the '80s and '90s. Uri isn't a violent guy, but he's a capitalist, and realizes very early in life that he's a lot more likely to get rich hocking firearms than he is working in his family's Ukrainian restaurant in Little Odessa, making pot after pot of borsch with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto). So he starts selling guns. Lots and lots of them. By the time the mid-'80s roll around, he's making regular trips to Russia to pick up mountains of used AK-47s so he can sell them to the highest bidder (and often the highest bidder's opponent in the war-of-the-moment). Wealth and fame come so easily to Uri that it's amazing that someone with a more interesting personality didn't get to it first.
That Cage does so little with Uri Orlov is just one of the problems with this film. Uri is as bland as over-cooked cabbage. Sure, he has his moments of ingenuity (the few scenes where Cage goes toe-to-toe with an Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke are a delight), but he's just so disconnected from any type of emotion or perspective on his own work that he's just a bore to watch. Why should we care about this man? Because he sells guns? While that fact might hold an audience for a scenemaybe twoit's simply not enough to carry a film. Cage sleepwalks through this role, letting his accent slip from scene-to-scene, sounding about as Ukrainian as Whoopi Goldberg. This is a far cry from the Cage of Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Adaptation (2002), and Matchstick Men (2003) when he's at his manic, neurotic best.
Not all of the blame can be leveled at Cage, however. That the primary characters lack depth and are largely unsympathetic is Niccol's problem as a writer. Jared Leto's Vitaly is a silly messnever quite as crazy or as lovable as he needs to be. Bridget Moynahan is a non-entity as Uri's naïve trophy wife. Even the great Ian Holm is used sparingly, never called upon to do much more than act smug. Only Ethan Hawke stands out as a by-the-book Interpol agent trying to make the world a better place. And even then, his character isn't much more than a plot device with a sexy goatee.
Niccol does his best to present all of this in a Three Kings (1999) style irreverent satirea film that Lord is being compared to by some prominent criticsbut he gets only halfway there. For sure, his visuals are straight out of the David O. Russell/P.T. Anderson School of New Auteursbright, grainy, and sharply edited. His musical choices are nostalgic and just a little kitsch. And the narration he provides for Cage is droll, observant, and warranted. However, unlike Three Kings and Boogie Nights (1997) (a tragedy that actually works), Lord of War just doesn't take pleasure in its own decadence. These are unique individuals living beyond the edge of the law, dealing with unfathomable sums of money, who contribute to thousands of deaths every yearyet no one seems to notice. No one has any fun. Niccol wants the viewer to "identify with the sinner," in the words of Tim Grierson, "but has no taste for the sin" himself.
That this film is comparable to Ted Demme's Blow is interesting, given that the protagonistsCage and Johnny Depphave followed such similar career paths. Both spent the '80s and early-'90s doing a series of small, quirky films that earned them respect. Both followed with a series of bigger-budget mainstream films that gave them Hollywood clout. Both sold their souls to work with Jerry Bruckheimer. Both were nominated for Oscars while playing functional (or in Cage's case, not-so-functional) alcoholics. And both used their post-blockbuster clout to start challenging themselves agai
And that's where the analogy ends, because where Johnny Depp's star is on the riseand deservedly soNicolas Cage's is on the decline. Where Depp takes risks playing Willy Wonka and gets production on The Rum Diary in motion, Cage is set to star in Time Share, which has an IMDb plot outline that reads like so: "When two families are booked for the same time share, both fathers (Cage and [Will] Smith) square off against one another." And he only has himself to blame. Lord of War fits perfectly into a filmography that includes Daddy Day Care 3: Back in the Habit by 2009.
Films like Lord of War are infuriating because they house so much potential. They're slickly made, backed by major studios, and given advertising budgets that could free small countries from debt. Yet they're made with such a disregard for the basic elements of a classical storytelling and characterization they deserve the box-office failure that they often reap. Like the trajectory of Nic Cage's career, these films aren't something one wants to root against, but because the outcome seems inevitable it's hard not to smile condescendingly. Hoping for better filmsand better choices for our favorite actorsis all we can really do.
Well, that, and not paying to see Lord of War. Or Time Share, for that matter.