A film review by Craig J. Koban
LORD OF WAR
2005, R, 122 mins.
Nicolas Cage /
Bridget Moynahan / Vitaly Orlov:
Jared Leto / Simeon Weisz:
Ian Holm / Valentine:
Ethan Hawke / Baptiste Senior: Eamonn Walker / Baptiste Junior: Sammi Rotibi
“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?”
– Yuri Orlov
What is worse, if I may ask you? Someone that works for a big tobacco company that sells a product that kills millions every year or someone that works in the gun trafficking trade whose weapons kill millions of people on an annual basis? Well, if you were the obsessively amoral arms dealer Yuri Orlov, then you would most likely argue that both are really not altogether different. After all, in his mind he is just supplying a product...he’s not pulling the trigger...right?
Perhaps Yuri is not completely fanatical in his thoughts. Consider that the diseases that have lead to deaths as a result of smoking have now become the leading scourge of the 20th and 21st Century. Approximately five trillion cigarettes are manufactured each year, which is conservatively estimated to be a cigarette for every man, woman, and child on Earth. Many analysts forecast that the annual mortality rate on the planet from smoking could rise to the tens of millions in the by the next decade - an astounding number. Yet, the tobacco industry thrives and is more profitable than ever, and the men and women that work for them seem to have no problem sleeping at night considering the enormous health tolls that their product has placed on humanity.
Okay, but what about guns and weapons? Are they really any different at all? Today there are thousands of nuclear weapons that could easily destroy the earth at any moment, despite the fact that they remain largely dormant and have never really been used against an oppressive enemy. Then there are guns, and the United States has hundreds of millions of them, more than enough for every person that populates the country. There are also approximately 14 people gunned down for every 100,000 in the US on a yearly basis. Gun problems run rampant in other industrialized countries as well, albeit on a smaller scale than that of the US. Because of this, the terms "weapons of mass destruction" are a bit of a misnomer when used in the literal and modern sense to describe large-scale instruments of destruction. In terms of deaths, guns are the true weapons of mass destruction.
At the risk of sounding like I am condoning the rationale of an obvious menace to society, Yuri makes some sense, in a sort of twisted way. To him, a tobacco executive has no problem going home from the office after a nine to five day and never feels the urge to get worked up or get ill over scrutinizing the consequences of what his product has done to people. I guess, when you think simply on it, why would a weapons salesman feel any different? Yet, the pragmatist in me always senses a fault in Yuri’s mindset. The issue that clearly delineates the two is this – people have the choice to smoke or stop smoking. Most people that live in the most dilapidated and vile war torn countries on the planet don’t really have much of a conscious say in whether or not they can live. It is Yuri’s quietly commanding and dishonorable posturing that makes him a definitive monster.
Yuri, of course, is played by Nicolas Cage in the provocative new film LORD OF WAR. Yuri is a worldwide weapons dealer and oftentimes takes great pains to justify his business trade of choice as being everything but unscrupulous. He is incredibly gifted at what he does, and has done business, as he once humorously states, with “every army except the Salvation Army.” He, like many immigrants to America, started with absolutely nothing, but he found his calling and soon rose to the top of his game in a relatively short time. You instantly want to chastise the man and label him as a cruel and selfish creature that is in a state of perpetual and ignorant tunnel vision about the worth of his lifestyle, yet Cage plays him in a miracle performance. It’s a miracle performance because Cage makes us hate the man for obvious reasons, but he also gains our odd respect. Yuri is, after all, well dressed, affable, charming, and enormously suave. It’s hard not to like him, despite his predilection towards overt criminal activity that indirectly kills millions every year. Then again, killing “is not his business", just selling the instruments that kill. Yes, you want to strangle him for his shortsightedness, but you can also appreciate the logic in his views.
Yuri was not always a hotshot international dealer of weapons of mass destruction. He is an immigrant and had impoverished and humble roots in the Ukraine. He has a level of cocky and arrogant self-assurance about himself. When his family immigrated to the Big Apple they settled in Little Odessa, where many other fellow Ukrainians lived. Yet, he sure is not satisfied with selling and serving cabbage rolls and borsch in his family restaurant. In a way, he is very much a figure like Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS. They both grew up in poverty, but soon look out of their living room windows for inspiration.
One day something dawns on Yuri. The local mobsters that cruise around the neighborhood are a tough breed. He sees the power they exude and all of the spoils that they partake in. Soon, he begins to contemplate their lifestyles. Maybe he has what it takes to make it in the criminal underworld. Obviously, since he is not content with making any more goulash, Yuri decides that it's time for him and his baby brother Vitali (Jared Leto) to make a career change and sell something that is always in huge demand – weapons.
Yuri’s first sale is bitter sweet, but awkward in ways (he has to read the instruction manual ahead of time for a gun in order to not sound stupid in the sales pitch). Yet, with his carefree demeanor, frank disposition, and earthy calm and collectedness, Yuri soon climbs the international arms ladder to wealth and fame. It’s no wonder how he manages to go so far so quickly. He personifies confidence and has a level of indisputable intelligence and wit. He often manages to come close to convincing even us that what he does is not an indefensible act. Again, like Henry Hill, Yuri speaks his mind through voice over narration, where he not only justifies his job, but let’s us all in on all of his trade secrets, which amounts basically to selling to anyone at anytime. Oh, he does proudly claim to have never sold to Osama Bin Ladden. He bounced too many checks early on, it seems.
Yuri and his brother gleefully deal with anyone, and his list of clients span the globe. He has only a few competitors, but his client registry makes him rarely worry about competing business. He does face off from time to time against another old school dealer named Simeon Weisz (the always charismatic Ian Holm), but his methods are, alas, not Yuri’s methods. Yuri, when he was still wet behind the ears, asked Simeon in they could be a team. Well, old Simeon declined and when it becomes apparent later that every bad guy on the planet wants to buy from Yuri, it creates some instant bad blood between the two.
If there is anything that Yuri hates it’s peace. Why? Because no business can be done during peace talks. Then again, there is always Bosnia, where he feels that there is always a presence there to buy his product. He does manage to maintain two very close customers in Africa – a Liberian dictator named Baptiste Senior (the softly antagonistic Eamonn Walker) and his son Baptiste Jr. (the more hot-headed Sammi Rotibi). The business relationship the two form is one more of convenience than mutual fondness. They both are wary of one another and don’t trust each other, but they nevertheless are often drawn together. Yuri sells guns and Baptiste needs them. Yuri’s lust to make money has no bounds. He barely manages to display any contempt for Baptiste when he tests out one of his guns and kills an unarmed man. “Now you have to buy it because it’s a used gun," he lashes out. Baptiste chuckles, and their business relationship is formed.
LORD OF WAR is an endlessly fascinating and provocative film. Yet, it's also unapologetically unsettling and disturbing. We like Yuri very much and find it hard not to be taken into his lurid and decrepit world. Yet, the film is like an emotional pendulum during which we are fond of Yuri’s abilities to make sense of his strange and cruel job, but then grow to hold it all in scornful contempt when we see the nastier underbelly of it all. LORD OF WAR, much like Jonathan Swift’s A MODEST PROPOSAL, also works as a piece of scathing social and political satire. It’s equal parts darkly funny and morose, but it is also very timely and consistently relevant to our own modern dilemmas. It’s a film that is not afraid to assault us with both disturbing imagery and sarcastic and dry humor.
This is also a film of gloomy irony and melancholy. LORD OF WAR reminded me constantly of GOODFELLAS in the sense that both films are about men that desperately (and oftentimes intelligently) try to justify their murky lives. Both start with little and then rise to the upper echelon of wealth and prestige and then see it come crashing down. Yet, the ironic and hard truth is that Yuri falls less hard than Hill. He does suffer personal losses, to be sure, but he goes through no serious career setbacks, nor does he face any real legal repercussions. In this way, the film contains some harsh truths – in the real world many people get away with murder, both directly and indirectly.
Not all of LORD OF WAR is successful. The eventual closure of one character’s story arc is painfully predicated later on in the film and can be seen from a mile away. Also, there is the role of the Interpol agent, played by the usually reliable Ethan Hawke, where the screenplay can't honestly decide whether to make him a daring hero and champion of the law or some sort of antagonist to Cage’s otherwise villainous persona. Then there is Yuri’s wife, played well by Bridget Moynahan, who may have the most thankless role in the film, if not the most underdeveloped. She is written as such an enigmatic emotional presence in the film. She is the object of Cage’s desires and becomes a trophy bride to Yuri later on. Yet, I am not completely convinced that she is naïve and dismissive enough to allow herself to never seriously question Yuri’s real life. She thinks he’s in the international shipping business and surprisingly does not ask a lot of questions, at least at first. Her willingness to be a participant in a marriage of obvious deceit (on the wedding day she explains that she does not really need any personal details on Yuri's dealings…?) rings on a largely false note. For her to not feel the need to seriously probe the real man she married and discover her husband’s true life underneath his shadowy and ambiguous façade seems kind of silly.
Yet, LORD OF WAR remains an overtly cynical masterpiece of social commentary and bleak and repugnant laughs. The film was written and directed with a real sense of style and confidence by Andrew Niccol, and his screenplays for GATTACA and THE TRUMAN SHOW were among some of the most underrated of the 90’s. After his uncompromisingly awful SIMONE, Niccol is back in fine form here. He manages to create some splendid visual sights (the opening credit sequence is amazing in its construction and execution), but he also is able to carve out a film that is simultaneously an entertaining and fundamentally absorbing work. The film marries bleak humor and moral outrage astoundingly well and Nicolas Cage hits a high note with making us find value and interest in his paradoxically likable character. Yuri may never kill anyone directly and may not like the feel of an AK-47 in his hands, but beyond his agreeable and charming manners and statesman-like business sense, he really is a vindictive, uncaring and vile fiend.