When you look at the expense involved in making a motion picture it is amazing any films get made at all. It seems the Hollywood moguls, those in the suits holding the money have power of sway over just about any film being made; if a producer can't secure money within the Hollywood system then the chances of a film being made are significantly reduced. That was the problem Andrew Niccol faced with Lord of War. In his commentary Niccol informs us of the problems he had securing money, and that fact that even now, after completion and run he still does not know half the investors. There are, of course, a plethora of different reasons why a film may be deemed financially unviable the most contentious of these would be the subject matter; in the case of Lord of War the material is about private black market gun runners, itself not that controversial, but when the film's tone is neither condemnation nor acceptance and then states true facts that governments are responsible for all the major arms trafficking worldwide, more specifically the United States and the United Kingdom, it is little wonder that finance was hard to come by. Deliciously ironic considering the amount of money the film discusses.
Nicholas Cage (who also produces) plays Yuri Orlov a Ukrainian immigrant living in Little Odessa, New York in 1981, forced to pretend to be Jewish to escape a communist tag. One fateful day he witnesses a gang related murder and realises that supplying arms might be an extremely profitable way to live. Enlisting the help of his brother Vitali (Jared Leto) the pair get to work at arms fairs and aboard; business is good especially for Yuri, he has an aptitude for the job and an emotional detachment (“It's not our fight”) something Vitoli continually struggles with, to which end he becomes addicted to drugs. Yuri has no choice but to commit him and go it alone. With a combination of global instability and contacts it's not long before Yuri is at the top of his game; he even manages to marry his ideal woman in the form of super model Ava Fontaine Orlov (Bridget Moynahan) and have a child. In fact the only cloud on the horizon is Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) and his continuing quest to bring down the gun runners. When Valentine gets too close (by intercepting Ava) Yuri tries his hand at legitimate business, however when Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker), a particularly sadistic African governor and one of Yuri's chief buyers turns up and persuades him into one last job. Of course it ends badly, but not for Yuri because of his connections and position manages to slip the net one last time.
The film follows Yuri's life over twenty years taking into account the real life events that have shaped the world and the gun runners lives. Niccol has gone to great pains to ensure that the events depicted are based on real events from single shots such as the opening shot of Yuri on the carpet of bullets to actual tricks employed by gun runners to evade authorities, like smuggling ammunition in potatoes and changing the names and flags of container ships at sea.
The skill of the picture is to present itself as a moral tale without trying to force morality on the audience. Yuri is presented as a business man, fulfilling the supply and demand of the munitions trade; yes he is exceptionally good at his trade and he lies and cheats all the way, even to his wife, but in the end he has his own code and sells to everyone willing to buy. For most of the film we see the world through his eyes, idealistic as they may be. Vitoli represents the voice of conscience silenced for most of the film but voiced to his detriment in the final reel. Without this aspect of his nature Yuri collapses in on himself and it is at this lowest ebb that he is finally captured. Cage is cast perfectly for the role, imbuing Yuri with a kind of humanity and black humour that could otherwise have made this reprehensible character thoroughly unlikable. He takes the character and thus the film full circle supplying the facts as he sees them and leaving the tough choices up to the audience to interpret. Cage's dominance of the role has the negative side effect of reducing all other actors screen time, try as they might to stand out, and all do an exemplary job, no one can hold a candle to Cage. There is no doubting Niccol's stance on his subject matter, Valentine's numbers speech at the end sums that up, but in allowing the film to remain open ended and never spoon feeding an answer, conflicts arise in ones emotions. Loyalties are divided between the anti-hero and his ghastly trade; we feel the shock and revulsion at what the weapons are being used for, but at the same time are willing for Yuri to 'win'. It is a clever ploy and one that really gets under your skin and ultimately asks us to take sides, something that Yuri himself never does.
I found Lord of War to be a highly intelligent piece of film making. Contrivances such as the actors never ageing, nor any attempt at placing ages to the various time periods (all because of budgetary constraints) do not matter to the overall story. Its only problem as far as I'm concerned is the episodic nature of the film, helped (or hindered) by the narration. It's very beginning, middle and end, and any sense of danger is lost as we know, from the narration, that Yuri will always come out on top. However, like all the best films it is a simple story well told with the capacity to have you thinking after the credits have rolled; a rare treat.
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