Monday, January 22, 2007

'War' slipped under my radar

“Lord of War” opens with Nicolas Cage standing surrounded by bullets with a backdrop of a smoking village. He speaks directly into the camera with what appear to be tears in his eyes and tells us: “There are over 550 million firearms in world wide circulation. That is one firearm for every 12 people on the planet.” Cage then takes a puff from a cigarette and says the last thing you’d expect him to say: “The only question is how do we arm the other 11.”

The title sequence that follows shows the life of a bullet from production to firing. The journey’s conclusion makes a more powerful statement than some whole films. Suddenly you realize you’re watching a film that could and will take you to unexpected places.

“Lord of War” was a movie wanted to see it, but it slipped my mind. I think it slipped a lot of people’s minds. It is an important, relevant film that managed to fall through the cracks.

Upon its release in late 2005, “Lord of War” received mixed reviews. Some critics gave it high praise, others admired its ambitious, but dismissed as dull and un-involving. At the box office it never quite connected with audiences, bringing in about $24 million in the U.S. and $62 million worldwide. With its budget of $45 million it made its money, but certainly could’ve and should’ve performed better.

In terms of cinema, 2005 was a highly political year, with films such as “The Constant Gardner,” “Munich,” “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” gobbling up attention and awards. It would seem “Lord of War,” a film in many respects just as good and as powerful as those films, got lost in the mix.

“Lord of War” was a victim of mis-marketing. The theatrical trailer for the film focused on explosions and gunfire to make the film appear to be a run-of-the-mill action movie. We are left with only hints at the more satirical aspects of the script.

The poor marketing only got worse as the film came to DVD. The clever theatrical poster, which featured a mosaic portrait of Cage made of bullets, was replaced with a rather ordinary cover that tried to force the film into a genre it didn't belong to. (See above photo).

The film’s Writer/director Andrew Niccol, whose other films as a writer and/or director include “Gattaca,” “The Truman Show” and “Simone” is a brilliant satirist and social commentator. Despite a moderately sized Hollywood budget, the film he has made is very un-Hollywood.

Niccol’s previous work has always been a shade darker than the average multiplex film, even if visually they appeared to be bright and sunny. He works within a genre, but subverts until it is unrecognizable. A film like “Gattaca” is science fiction, but it seems odd to place it next to “Independence Day” or “Alien.” The same holds true for the “Lord of War,” which has the gleaming surface of an action film, but the heart and mind of a biting satire and anti-war film.

Cage’s presence in the film was probably another factor that distanced some viewers. It is easy to forget that Cage is a talented actor since he often appears in dreck like the recent remake of “The Wicker Man.” Cage has been in his fair share of bad to mediocre action films, so you almost can’t blame audiences for believing that “Lord of War” would be more of the same.

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer who is very good at his job. He doesn’t pick sides. He sells to anyone and everyone. The film spans about 20 years, showing the rise of Yuri as he constantly dodges the pursuits of a diligent Interpol agent (a solid Hawke enriching a one-dimensional character).

Yuri starts out small with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, “Requiem for a Dream,” “Panic Room”) as his literal brother in arms. Yuri can turn a blind eye to the use of the weapons he sells with a simple, “it is not our fight,” but Vitaly doesn’t have the stomach for the work and succumbs to drugs to escape the pain.

That sounds cliché and perhaps it is, but Leto keeps it very human. The scripts has him doing all sorts of strung out antics, but Leto keeps it grounded by always letting the pain the drugs attempt to mask rise to the surface. He is the moral heart of the film.

As deplorable as Yuri’s actions are, Cage manages to create sympathy for him. You don’t support his actions and yet somehow you do like him. He’s a cog in the system. He is a man who knows what he does is wrong, but chooses to accept that if he is evil, that he is a necessary one. He knows that if he stops doing what he does, someone else would step into fill his place.

Cage gives a charismatic performance providing a voice over narration that guides us through the world of arms dealing. He delivers his lines with the perfect degree of caustic cynicism. The dialogue is often quite funny, but the film doesn’t make light of the issues it raises. The humor is always pointed and cutting, but never forgets the suffering that arms dealing inflicts.

The expectation of the trajectory of the film is an inevitable fall of Yuri. You expect Yuri to have a moral reawaking. Neither happens. The film is an unapologetically cynical with a message that is bleak and unhopeful. There is no sugarcoating. The film holds its line for its entire running time, which is rare and commendable, especially when it doesn’t yield a happy ending.

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