Tuesday, May 12, 2009

UNDERRATED: LORD OF WAR (2005)

Andrew Niccol is a smart guy. He wrote The Truman Show and the first draft of The Terminal and wrote and directed a very underrated sci-fi noir called Gattaca. However, his most recent film, Lord of War, which came and went in theaters during the fall of 2005, is a supremely undervalued effort that deserves a second life. It sits at 61% "fresh" overall at Rottentomatoes, which isn't terrible. It's just that way too many critics missed the boat on this movie. However, some people, like Ebert http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050915/REVIEWS/509150305/1023 and David Deby http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/09/26/050926crci_cinema saw the film for what it is: a dryly ironic and savage indictment of military policy and the worldwide demand for guns and ammunition. Lionsgate, the production company behind the release of the film (which was an independent production and the creative freedom from that fact shows in the final product), miss-marketed the movie as a straight-forward action flick, showcasing the few times guns are actually fired in the movie during the trailer, and making it out to be some standard Nic Cage blow 'em up, something that Lord of War most definitely is not.

Based on true events, the movie is about an international arms dealer named Yuri Orlov (Cage) who travels to all of the global hot-spots where war is being raged. He supplies people with their guns and he gets paid. Lots and lots of money. Yuri has zero conscience; these people (no matter how poor or uneducated) want their guns and they're going to get them one way or another. He's just giving the people what they want. On Yuri's trail is an FBI agent played by Ethan Hawke who is always one step behind him. There's some B-story action involving Yuri's model wife, which isn't as engaging as the material that deals with Yuri's profession. He's also got a coke-head brother played by Jared Leto who might become Yuri's undoing. Niccol's poison-arrow satire darts hit all of their intended targets in Lord of War; this is a purposefully cynical movie about a merchant of death, a "lord of war." Yuri isn't a likable guy, but Cage makes him engaging; it's one of his better recent performances, up there with his work in Matchstick Men and Adaptation.

The film also has a note-perfect ending that I just love. Lord of War also has a brilliant opening titles sequence, giving the audience a front-row view of the birth of a bullet, from melted metal all the way to being placed in the chamber of an M-16. The camera positions itself on the side of the bullet, and we follow the bullet's life from creation to eventual resting place. It's a small tour de force of filmmaking. Working with extra-slick images from cinematographer Amir Mokri (Bad Boys 2), Niccol sometimes contradicts himself with super-sexy images of artillery and murder, while his screenplay clearly condemns the actions of its characters. This might have been Niccol's point, however; guns are attractive to people, even if what they're used for doesn't create attractive results. Lord of War deserved a better theatrical life than it was afforded; it crashed and burned at the domestic box office with just about $25 million but also pulled in about $50 million overseas. I would have to assume it's done well on DVD, but this is just one of those movies that I don't think enough people have seen, and a film that I think many people might be thrown off by because of the poor marketing it received. Lord of War isn't a masterpiece, but it's damn good, very entertaining, occasionally thought provoking, and very pissed off over a real problem that our world has always faced.



4 comments:

Lemmy Caution said...

I enjoy these "underrated" posts. This is the second one that I remember not caring much for when I first saw it, but now wanting to check it out again.

Actionman said...

It's definitely worth checking out again. It's a strong movie. Not perfect, but much better than most people give it credit for being.

I've got a LONG LIST of movies for this "underrated" series of posts. Stay tuned...

LexOwnsYou said...

I remember liking it but have never seen it on a second time; Isn't there some awesome drugged-out stretch with Cage in Africa when he bottoms out?

His "hair" in that era was REALLY strange -- this, Weather Man, Ghost Rider... Here I know it's just briefly early on when his character is younger, but still thought it was strange that after a decade or so with basically the same hairline, NC started showing up with this full, buoyant head of thick hair and a low hairline.

I also always forget Hawke was in this... Aren't some of the soundtrack choices a little more obvious and less awesome than they'd be with a more visionary director at the helm?

Ha, those whines aside, like I said, it's still a good movie.

Actionman said...

Yeah, I agree with you Lex. In the hands of a veteran, the film might've been tighter. I just think it's a better effort than it got credit for being.

Your hair analysis was hysterical.

And yes, that drugged-out scene of Cage hitting rock bottom is halluncinatory brilliance. Great cinematography all throughout.