Lord of War
In 1997 a 33-year-old New Zealander named Andrew Niccol stunned us all with a first film called "Gattaca," starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. It was a dystopian story about a corporatized America in the near future, a story that seems now to have anticipated a lot of what has happened here since 9/11.
Niccol went on to write "The Truman Story," an ironic look at the American dream, and then he wrote and directed "SimOne," a not very successful take on our love affair with the power of computers. And now he's written and directed the Nicolas Cage film "Lord of War," in which Cage plays the Soviet-born, American-raised international arms dealer Yuri Orlov. Yuri is unapologetic about his work - he tells us that there are 550 million guns in circulation around the world, enough for one out of every twelve people on the planet. "My problem is, how to get them to the other eleven," he says.
The film opens with Cage standing over what appears to be an industrial wasteland covered with bullets, talking about his work. Then the opening credits show us the life of a bullet, from its birth at a factory in Russia through its various assembly and shipping points, till it ends in the forehead of a child in Africa. Bang. Niccol takes no prisoners here. We follow Yuri through good times and bad, with his bright but cocaine-addicted younger brother Vitali (Jared Leto), who saves them once when an Interpol speedboat is about to intercept their arms-laden freighter and they must paint over the ship's name and give it a Dutch registry. Vitali somehow knows that the French flag flown sideways becomes the Dutch flag.
Yuri's nemesis is Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the Interpol detective, who trails him, and us in the audience, around the world. Along the way Yuri finds the beautiful model Ava (Bridget Moynahan) and makes her his trophy wife. But the life of an arms dealer isn't all fun and bribes. His biggest customer is the president of Liberia, Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker), who is pleased to shoot one of his own aides just to make a point to Yuri.
What's fascinating about the film is that Niccol uses Cage's own very attractive screen presence and warmth to counter the sordid, even obscene story he's telling. Much as we despise the amoral Yuri we're drawn to him at the same time. He does bad things but he does them with wit and even, on occasion, honor. It's a strange combination but it works here. Instead of a treatise, "Lord of War" is a compelling, even at times witty, look at horror. I can't wait for Niccol's next venture. Where can he go from here?