I'm going to borrow an analogy used in the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings for a moment. When Nicholas Cage comes up to bat, he frequently hits singles or misses, but when he hits a homerun, it is usually out of the ballpark. Cage has certainly made his share of crappy ("Gone in 60 Seconds") or mediocre films ("The Family Man"), but he has also, occasionally, made really good films. Films that he should be proud of. Films that would do a Nicholas Cage Film Festival proud. "Lord of War" is such a film.
Directed by Andrew Niccol (the writer of "The Truman Show" and the writer/director of the underappreciated "Gattaca" and the rightfully forgotten "Simone"), "War" is a dark comedy that falters only once or twice. This coupled with a terrific performance by Cage make it a memorable film. Whether it becomes a remembered film has yet to be seen.
Yuri Orlov (Cage) and his brother Vitale (Jared Leto) are second generation Ukrainian immigrants helping their Catholic parents run a Kosher restaurant in the Little Odessa neighborhood of New York. One day, Yuri witnesses a gang shootout and realizes that money can be had from selling guns. He talks Vitale into partnering with him and they start a business taking them into war zones across the globe. As the money rolls in, each spends on their vice of choice; Vitale starts snorting profit through his nose and Yuri romances Eve (Bridget Moynahan), a famous model from the old neighborhood. After they are married, the Cold War ends and business really picks up. A zealous ATF agent (Ethan Hawke) sets his sights on Yuri.
Reportedly based on true events, "War" is a fast-paced, darkly comic look at a man we should loathe.
Cage's performance is great. The film begins with Yuri breaking the fourth wall; addressing the audience from the screen, talking about his business and his morals ("I never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden. Not on moral grounds, just at that time, his checks were always bouncing.") setting the tone for his character and the film. Throughout the film, Yuri frequently provides narration which is light and breezy, a brilliant counterpoint to the subject matter. This also helps to make his character more memorable, because what he says is usually completely at odds with what we should be feeling or experiencing. Somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how he does it, Cage makes Yuri a sympathetic guy. Yuri is a drug runner who sells weapons and helps keep wars going so he can make more money. He occasionally uses drugs and also cheats on his wife, Eve. Yet, we care for him. When he gets into dangerous situations, we want him to get out safely. How did Cage accomplish this? Part of it is that we see him in dangerous situations. Other people die. The danger is there. Things happen to him. He isn't completely unaffected either. Because we feel for him, we laugh at ourselves for being taken in by this character which in turn adds to the dark humor.
Niccol manages to tell a political story, without preaching. We learn or witness as the story unfolds. The beginning sequence, a terrific point of view shot of the journey of a single bullet from manufacture to use also helps to quickly establish what Niccol is trying to do. He uses Yuri as his mouthpiece, serious at times and completely unaffected at others. Because we are watching the events through this character's eyes, it would be impossible for the film to be very preachy. Yuri wouldn't stand around and preach about this or that, so Niccol doesn't either. Even though Yuri frequently makes statements about his impartiality to one conflict or the other, his statements and what he witnesses inform us. Parts of the story are serious and others are satirical. Niccol maintains this blend well throughout faltering only a few times in the last act.
The supporting cast is good. Jared Leto is convincing as Vitale, Yuri's coked out, out of control younger brother. Bridget Moynahan is also good as Eve, Yuri's wife, who doesn't face the truth until forced to. Ian Holm makes a brief appearance as an old school gunrunner, Yuri's main competition.
Ethan Hawke's role as Agent Valentine is little more than a glorified cameo. Hawke starred in Niccol's first film "Gattaca" and I get the sense they wanted to work together again, no matter the project. It seems as though Valentine is meant to be the character who reflects was we should be feeling, the conscience of the audience. In his few moments on screen, he says what we should say; he displays the disgust we should feel. But the character is, as mentioned, only on screen for a brief period. Thankfully. If the character did work, providing a Yang to balance Cage's Ying, the film would lose a significant amount of its dark humor. It's a small role and odd that they would use his name in the advertisements.
"Lord of War" is not a perfect film, but it is a memorable one and it contains a great performance from Nicholas Cage.