Yuri Orlov (Cage) tells of his career in the international arms trade, from small beginnings in America to bigger, more dangerous deals in Africa. Pursued by an Interpol agent (Hawke), Yuri prospers in his bloody business at great cost to his relationships with his brother (Leto) and wife (Moynihan).
In earlier films as a writer-director, Gattaca and S1m0ne, plus his script for The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol looks to New Scientist articles and current cultural trends for the seeds of ‘if this goes on …’ awful warnings. Here, he is more interested in why the world is hell now, and how it has become that way, than in how much worse things will be in the future — and he seizes upon a big subject unduly neglected by the movies. Many films have dwelled on the ins and outs of the illegal drug business, but Lord Of War applies the GoodFellas-style insider confessional approach to a trade where death isn’t an unfortunate side effect but the main attraction: the arms business.
Much of the entry-level material is striking: a credits sequence gives a bullet’s eye-view as it takes a long journey from an American factory to an African head, and the narrator spiels lovingly about the Soviet 1947 model Kalashnikov (the AK-47, the real ‘weapon of mass destruction’). The Scarface dealer’s dictum (“Never get high on your own supply”) is wittily updated in the “first rule of gun-running” (“Never get shot with your own merchandise”), but it’s hard to make the weapons business as perversely exhilarating as the dope trade.
Movies fetishise guns, as the script acknowledges with the dictator’s son obsessed with owning “the gun of Rambo”, but there’s surprisingly little excitement in watching cases of ex-Soviet ‘machine parts’ being traded on Third World docks or in the back of beyond, even with hair’s-breadth escapes, car bomb assassinations and vividly horrid characters like Eamonn Walker’s all-purpose evil African dictator.
As often in criminal memoirs, it is hard to get really involved with a main character who — despite Nicolas Cage’s insidious charm — is just a shit. All Yuri Orlov’s unapologetic candour can’t make you care when his wife wants to leave him or his more morally ambivalent brother cracks up. The cat-and-mouse between Yuri and his Interpol nemesis (Hawke) leads to a last reel shift which is probably necessary from an audience’s point of view — reminding us that crooks like Yuri are minor operators next to the big governments who sell weapons legally — but really shouldn’t be news to supposed professionals.
It would like to be Traffic with guns, but comes out more like Blow with bullets. Impressive performances, fascinating info-bytes and pertinent editorial, but in the end, it feels too much like an illustrated lecture.