Thursday, October 23, 2008


Ridley Scott's exciting new spy thriller BODY OF LIES (***1/2) is yet another terrific piece of topical entertainment to come out of Hollywood and bomb with audiences and most critics. I am not sure what the hell is going on in our country when it comes to audiences shunning movies of this sort. We're seemingly becoming a nation of ostriches, content with burying our heads in the dirt and ignoring smart, relevant movies that deal with our current socio-political landscape. The movie casualty list just keeps getting bigger and bigger and it’s a fucking shame. BODY OF LIES joins a group which includes movies like THE KINGDOM (an excellent action flick), IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (a somber, contemplative character study) , STOP-LOSS (a passionate coming-home story), RENDITION (a riveting political thriller), LIONS FOR LAMBS (a thoughtful drama), and REDACTED (a dark, searing, but flawed drama), which have all under preformed at the box office and have been met with mixed-to-negative critical response. True, there have been some critics who have praised the many strengths of these films and some were only given limited theatrical releases. While not all of those films are perfect in every respect, they all offer interesting glimpses of different aspects of our current "war on terror." But for whatever reason, most people have just decided that they can’t be bothered with movies that depict our current world situation. We’d rather go see soul-sucking horse-shit like BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHU or MAX PAYNE or SAW fucking 5. Says a lot about us as a country. And as much as the right-wing Republican base would like you to believe, these films are not anti-American or anti-government. Rather, they are intellectually probing and ask important questions, they don't always offer easy answers, and they remind us that we cannot become complacent as a society to the problems that our world currently faces.
In the case of BODY OF LIES, Scott and his excellent screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), have created a Bourne-esque narrative which swings back and forth between various middle-Eastern countries and Washington DC in an effort to show the complexities of working for the C.I.A, both on the ground level, and also in the control room. It’s quite a show to be perfectly honest. And while it makes one mistake during its climax (which I can’t discuss any further without providing some major spoilers) which keeps it from being in the same masterpiece-level as Scott's earlier middle-eastern war film BLACK HAWK DOWN, BODY OF LIES is urgent, visceral filmmaking that is already the most underrated film of the year. This is just the sort of movie that people should be going to see and enjoying. It’s got major stars giving great performances. A top-flight director working at the top of his craft. A twisty, dark-as-hell screenplay that is both a marvel of fluidity as well as an prime example of crafty skullduggery. And it’s got fantastic action sequences that only a filmmaker of Scott’s caliber could execute. What more do you need for a film like this?

A scruffy and confident Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, a go-for-broke C.I.A. operative working the streets of whatever war-torn country that needs attention. Set up in Jordan, he is tasked with weeding out a major terrorist who has recently set off bombs in London and Amsterdam. Ferris, working with his conceited superior Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, chubby, smarmy, and perfect as always) who is stationed in Washington DC, concocts a plan to create a fake terrorist organization as a way of bringing his enemy out of hiding. Hoffman, a family man seen dropping his kids off at school and cheering on the sidelines of soccer games, is a spy of a different breed. Barking orders into his Blue Tooth at Ferris, stuffing his face with food, and conducting war games via his laptop, Hoffman is constantly subverting Ferris at every turn. All in the name of what he feels is the greater good for the country. Ferris is also fighting for the greater good; it’s just that he sees the world completely different than Hoffman. Ferris is also working with the suave Jordanian Chief of Intelligence Hani Salaam (an excellent Mark Strong) in navigating the dangerous foreign terrain. The film cuts back and forth between Ferris on the ground and in many danger zones and Hoffman back at home, showing the various ways that our government reacts and responds to terrorist threats and actions.

Monahan’s screenplay is complicated without ever becoming incoherent, and while one subplot might seem slightly out of place (a romance between Ferris and an Iranian nurse), it has been included to show the differences in our cultures while also amping up the film's final act. Ferris is going through a divorce, and he meets a nurse after a pretty rough run-in with a pack of wild, potentially rabid dogs in an alley. They make small talk, he’s interested, but he has to follow the normal courting customs of the region. This makes for a particularly interesting encounter when Ferris goes to meet the nurse’s sister, in order to gain her approval. The script is subtle and smart while also being outraged by the idea that clueless government officials make heat-of-the-moment decisions that threaten the overall stability of what we're doing over there in the first place. Scott and Monahan make it clear that even with Predator spy-planes and modern technology, this is a war that is best fought with a low-tech approach; sometimes you just need to get in people's faces to get the information you need. There is a lot of plot in BODY OF LIES but the film moves at a breathless pace, never resting for more than a moment, and always keeping the audience appropriately informed of where this snaky story is headed.
Scott, as always, has brought his A-team of craftsmen to this project. Cinematographer Alexander Witt, making his debut as first-unit shooter after an unbelievable second unit career, shoots in moody, stylish tones befitting the customary polish that Scott always brings to his pictures. Editor Pietro Scalia, the genius of JFK and BLACK HAWK DOWN amongst many others, manages a ferocious pace which never becomes confusing. Production designer Arthur Max (GLADIATOR, SEVEN) gets to work in multiple countries and brings a gritty realism to all of the locations. It's a beautiful looking movie, which is no surprise given that Scott seems to be incapable of ever producing a boring or flat looking feature film. The action scenes are explosive and scary, with a major stand-out set-piece involving helicopter gun-ships and surface to air missiles. Scott knows the geography of an action sequence, using wide shots that establish location and position, and close-ups that take you into the middle of the fiery wreckage. Along with his brother Tony and Michael Bay, he’s the best in the business with this sort of stuff.

All of the performances are excellent. Coming off manly performances in both THE DEPARTED and BLOOD DIAMOND, DiCaprio yet again excels as a man of action. He’s slowly been maturing, and from role to role, DiCaprio is fast becoming the premier leading man of his generation. He’s got great taste in projects and the intensity he brings to each role is very apparent. I thought he was terrific in Scorsese’s incredible film THE AVIATOR, but since then, he’s just gotten better and better with each movie. Crowe, who put on roughly 50 pounds to play the always-eating, always-on-the-phone, man-behind-the-curtains, is despicable and disarming in equal measure; it's a more-than-meets-the-eye performance that could have been a complete snooze in lesser hands. Crowe is that rare actor that even when playing the villain, as he did in last year’s extremely satisfying western 3:10 TO YUMA, is able to charm you even when you want to punch him in the face. Like a companion piece of sorts to the work he did in Michael Mann’s masterwork THE INSIDER, Crowe gives in introverted and quietly forceful performance. And Strong, an actor new to me, is phenomenal as the oily and extremely well dressed Chief of Intelligence. He steals every single scene he appears in and be brings a level of intrigue to every portion of the plot his character figures into. He deserves a supporting actor nomination.
I wish that BODY OF LIES did one thing different in it's final moments which is the reason that I am not giving it a four star rating. When you’re playing with over $80 million of the studio’s money, it’s tough to do certain things within this sort of genre. Scott definitely takes chances in BODY OF LIES; it’s just that I wish that a certain scene ended in a different fashion. Still, this minor quibble aside, BODY OF LIES is more cinematic excellence courtesy of Ridley Scott. He’s been a favorite filmmaker of mine for years know. I consider his films to be events. This one is no exception. If you want a film to stimulate you both visually and intellectually, look no further than the riveting BODY OF LIES.

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