Reviewing the Old School: Lord of War (2005)

This film still stands as one of my all time favourites and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Released in 2005 and both written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Lord of War stars Nicolas Cage as Ukrainian-American arms-dealer Yuri Orlov in a cynically comical rags-to-riches story as he deals with warlords (most notable being Andre Baptiste and his son Andre Baptiste Jr, played excellently by Eamonn Walker and Sammi Rotibi respectively), business rivals (Simeon Weisz, played by Ian Holm) and law enforcement (the incorruptible Interpol agent Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke who’s worked a great deal with the director). He marries the girl of his dreams (Ava Fontaine, played by Bridget Moynahan) and loves his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and parents.

Perhaps I love this film because of the craftsmanship and acting. The script is excellent, the direction fantastic and the editing excellent. It’s paced so that a great deal happens without the film ever feeling rushed or overlong. Nicolas Cage is excellent in the role, as are all the others. Jared Leto plays Yuri’s limited moral compass led astray by a cocaine addiction exactly how you’d expect. Bridget Moynahan is loving and supportive yet obviously uncomfortable with the knowledge that Yuri does bad shit to support her in her own endeavours. Eamonn Walker is terrifying as the brutal dictator, able to convey barely restrained violence with a look then switching to good humour and laughter at the frightening drop of the hat, probably my favourite performance in the film. Sammi Rotibi is just crazy, but in a way where you’re not sure if his predictable predilection for violence is more or less of a threat than his father’s bare restraint. Ethan Hawke is earnest in his execution of the law and sincere in his belief in justice, you never have trouble believing him to be a character that Yuri respects.

Perhaps I like all the small details in the film. The way that the shadow of Colonel Oliver Southern (we never see more than his silhouette and parts of his uniform) is voiced by a different actor on the three occasions we see him, implying that the job is permanent even if the person filling it isn’t. Yuri revealing his lack of scruples by admitting the reason he never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden was because the Mujahadeen leader had atrocious credit. The use of loopholes and literal false flags to spirit weapons across the world and beneath imposed sanctions. Small details that build up the world in which Yuri lives and operates into something alive. Something real.

Perhaps I like the darkly comedic look at an industry that is fucking villainous if it isn’t outright evil. I love me some dark comedy. This film isn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of funny, rather it has an undercurrent of almost-surreal cynicism that surrounds Yuri’s life and worldview. His parents pretended to be Jews to escape the Soviets, and his father took to it better than most Rabbis. He hears cash register bells instead of gunshots as a mujahadeen lets rip at an unseen target with one of Yuri’s kalashnikovs. During a cocaine and gunpowder induced wander through the desert he has one of those kalashnikovs pointed at his head and fail to fire, then can’t stop apologising and offering to fix it. Andre Jr asking for “the gun of Rambo” and Yuri simply replying “Part One, Two or Three?” The flippant insanity of Andre Sr, who’ll shoot a man that displeases him on a whim and apologise for the dead man’s lack of discipline. Who jumbles up western words and idioms then smiles and says “Thank you, but I prefer it my way.”

Perhaps I love this film because of its honesty. The film shows the human cost of the arms trade, not just its victims (though  don’t worry, the movie never fails to remind us of the victims) but on the traders themselves. Yuri can’t stop, because he’s good at it and he likes being good at it, but it costs him everything else that he holds dear. His wife and child. His brother. His parents. He hates himself, but he can’t stop. It’s an addiction, cleverly paralleled by his brother Vitaly’s coke habit. And it is never glamorised. Well it is, but the film makes such glamorisation look superficial at best and crass at worst. Even when the film is being dishonest it is less an attempt to trick the audience and more like Yuri trying to trick himself. Excusing himself for sleeping around or trying to convince himself that he was merely a supplier, not responsible for the deaths his weapons reek. But we see this dishonesty, see the sincere lie, just like Yuri does when Vitaly tells him he’s a good brother, right after being provided by that good brother with one last hit before going to rehab. Yuri is an enabler, for his brother and for these warlords. And we all know it.

Maybe I just like the music. From the first song playing as we watch the life of a bullet (from twinkle in a factory’s eye to being fired into some poor kid’s head) to the final soft instrumental piece playing into the end credits every song is perfect and appropriate, affecting the mood of the moment.

Regardless I love this movie. You should really watch it.

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