If there's anything more punishing than watching a bad idea badly told, it's watching a good idea badly told. Lord of War showcases one of those thematically relevant scripts that tend to get shoved to the bottom of the stack when studio readers are searching for commercially viable projects to wave in front of their bosses. It's a sober look at international gunrunning, and the opening credit sequence, which follows a single bullet from its creation in a factory to its final destination inside the skull of a young boy, promises that this picture will take no prisoners.
Yet what dooms Lord of War right from the start is its central character. Speaking to the camera directly as if he fancied himself Ferris Bueller, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) informs us at the outset that he's an international arms dealer who's made a successful life for himself by acquiring and selling weapons to anyone, anywhere. Yuri takes us back to the beginning, relating in GoodFellas mode how a restless kid from Brooklyn's Little Odessa section, seeking a break from the monotony of his lower-middle-class life, decided to pursue this line of occupation for the thrill and the dough. From here, we follow him as he lands his dream girl (Bridget Moynahan), takes his coke-addled brother (Jared Leto) under his wing, orchestrates deals with mass murderers across the globe and eventually has a crisis of conscience so small that it seems to last only a nanosecond (if that).
Yuri's story is set up in the classic cinematic tradition of an immigrant who arrives in this country and decides that the only way to make it to the top is through violence and bloodshed. It's the bastardization of the American Dream -- it's Scarface all over again, to such an extent that I almost expected Yuri to point at his arsenal of AK-47s and bellow, "Say hello to my little friends!" But Scarface (both the 1932 and 1983 versions) made no bones about the fact that the title gangster was a vile human being, a walking cancer who deserved to be carved up so that society could regain its health. By contrast, Lord of War keeps soft-pedaling its central character: Yuri defends his despicable actions not only by using the feeble argument that, hey, if he wasn't doing it, somebody else would, but also by delivering a risible speech in which he declares that he hopes all the bullets he sells miss their targets so that nobody gets injured! The improbabilities and contradictions make this an impossible character to play, and Cage immediately falls back on his established mannerisms (namely, sleepy-eyed indifference) to coast through this film. Moynahan fares no better with her equally ill-formed character, a woman who -- as it's noted more than once -- is happy not to ask questions as long as hubby keeps bringing home the bread, but who suddenly turns into one righteous dame upon learning the specifics of his business. Clearly, writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) means for us to muster some measure of empathy for Yugi and especially his wife, but there's nothing about these hypocrites that warrants such consideration.
Niccol obviously feels that the easy procurement of weapons -- not to mention the resultant casualties of war (usually women and children) -- is an important issue that requires further discussion; no argument there, especially considering the gun-crazy warmongers currently stinking up the White House. But Niccol would have had more success if he had placed his data in the context of compelling entertainment -- for inspiration, he should have studied 1999's Gulf War flick Three Kings, where the dark humor served to complement the movie's anti-war stance. Here, Niccol merely uses numbing voice-over narration by Yuri to pile on the statistics and crunch the figures. By the time the movie ends, we're more primed to take a pop quiz than to take a stand.