Lord of WarA trailer for Jarhead, about an American soldier in Desert Storm combat, preceded the matinée showing of Lord of War I saw two years ago. During the trailer, a U.S. marine passionately shouts, “We are the righteous hammer of God and that hammer is coming down!” A man behind me in the cinema responded, “Amen, brother!” I hope Niccol’s insinuating Lord of War helped him reconsider.

The film’s opening sequence takes us through the manufacture, shipment, and firing of an assault rifle cartridge from its own perspective. By placing us behind the bullet, from the factory to when it enters the skull of an African boy, Niccol implicates us in arms sales, genocide, and terrorism. And why not? The United States is the leading arms exporter and willfully ignores – if not supplies – most world terrorism.

Nicolas Cage’s performance as arms dealer Yuri Orlov also helps to reveal our complicity in worldwide violence. Niccol describes the process of selecting Cage for the role: “I thought, ‘Who can make the devil charming?’ It’s Nicolas Cage.” Yuri is an unsympathetic, heartless man who seeks from the start to profit from the greatest evils. But he is a pragmatic salesman, and Cage’s seductive performance soon finds the audience adopting Yuri’s blind-eye coldness. “It’s not our fight,” Yuri tells his brother. And somehow we believe him. When Yuri finally confronts his vain justifications, we are forced to confront our own.

But whatever Lord of War’s considerable moral and political implications, is it a good movie? Sadly, it isn’t; but screenwriting gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee would surely be impressed. Niccol has always written about strong concepts: a genetic totalitarianist future in Gattaca, a man who doesn’t know his life is a sitcom called The Truman Show, a digitally artificial movie star named S1m0ne, a trapped foreigner living in an airport Terminal, and now an arms trafficker “at war with himself” in Lord of War. Niccol’s characters are full-figured and memorable, his dialogue is sharp and ironic, his pacing is solid, his themes are significant, and he brings the audience plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes how-to.

But Niccol’s trademark weaknesses accompany his “strengths” into Lord of War. He flaunts every nuance in the film, bringing them each to a painfully obvious forefront and leaving nothing for repeat viewings. When Yuri must convince his pilot to make a rough landing on a gravel highway, he yells, “You can do it, Aleksei! You’re the shit! You’re the shit! You’re the shit!” Then, in voice over: “Of course he wasn’t the shit…” And when Yuri removes a toy gun from his sleeping son’s bedroom because he doesn’t want young Nicolai to grow up into his father’s industry, we also see Yuri drop the gun in the waste basket, and later we see Interpol agent Jack Valentine retrieve it from Yuri’s trash. Niccol won’t take the chance that his audience won’t notice a writing tidbit he’s proud of conceiving.

He also relinquishes plausibility to squeeze superfluous “cool” or “intense” moments into the movie. When Yuri’s pilot makes that emergency landing on a highway, the jet’s front tires stop inches from a baby sitting in the road. And when Yuri must quickly switch flags on his ship to avoid Interpol’s suspicion, it so happens that it’s best for Yuri to look like a Dutch ship, and he has every flag but a Dutch one, but of course he can make a French flag look like a Dutch flag by hanging it sideways. And, on two occasions, Yuri happens to make a major arms sale only a few yards away from where murders are taking place at that very moment. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master with the cinema of coincidence; Andrew Niccol is not.

He’s not a master director, either. Borrowing heavily from David Fincher, Niccol’s style is visually flashy in gimmicky, overused ways. While the concept of the opening sequence is worthy, the execution is flawed. The close-up CGI bullet looks as fake as the digital elements in long, CGI-populated shots from Fincher’s Fight Club and Panic Room. A time-lapsed shot of a giant jet being stripped to the bone overnight is entertaining, but Niccol clearly belongs to that depraved school of film direction that seeks for “what looks cool” in each scene without considering the thematic, emotional, and artistic consequences of its decisions. To be fair, it sometimes seems we must we travel as far as Greece (Angelopoulos) or Iran (Kiarostami) to find good directors who haven’t spawned from that school.

The performances, at least, bear no complaints. Cage is reliable as ever, Jared Leto (Yuri’s kid brother) is as good a drug addict as he was in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Ethan Hawke (Interpol agent Jack Valentine) reveals a deep character with little screen time, and Ian Holm nearly steals the show as rival arms dealer Simeon Weisz. Bridget Moynahan is “just pretty,” but that’s her character (”cover girl” and Yuri’s wife, Ava Fontaine).

But all the supporting roles are tiny; it’s Yuri’s story, and he carries the film. In fact, there’s not even much plot. The movie is a montage of events that shape Yuri and reveal his attitude toward the world, propelled by his lengthy but thought-provoking narration. A wholly corrupt protagonist is a rare treat (though better handled in Noé’s I Stand Alone), as is an antagonist who is wholly righteous (Valentine). And Yuri’s presentation of African conflicts is just callous enough to suggest the importance of genocides unknown to the West without being self-important like Hotel Rwanda. Yuri’s character is what makes the movie worth seeing despite its flaws.

Lord of War is not great art, not a good film, not a significant film. But it’s not terrible, which, in today’s mainstream movie wasteland, is significant.

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