When last we saw Nicolas Cage, he was selling his soul for a six-figure paycheck in the stupefying adventure National Treasure. In Lord of War, he plays a character who is selling his soul for a six-figure paycheck, obviously someone Nick can relate to. However, Lord of War features one of the actors strongest performances since Adaptation, as decadent, amoral arms trader Yuri Orlov, who rises to power in the Reagan 80s by selling black-market weapons to Third World countries. Much of the film cruises on Cages effortless charisma and energy, and its an intoxicating if not completely convincing ride. If writer-director Andrew Niccol had backed his star with a little more righteous indignation and a few less clichés, the movie might be something more than an enticing near-miss.
Cages Orlov provides copious voice-over narration for the film, leading viewers from his childhood as the son of Ukranian immigrants in Brooklyn to his globetrotting antics as a covert salesman of AK-47s and shoulder-to-air missiles in Africa and the Middle East. I never sold to Osama bin Laden back then he was always bouncing checks, he jokes. The movie follows the model set by Martin Scorseses classic Goodfellas: An ethnic-American boy grows up in the shadow of crime, is seduced by the money and the thrill of it all, marries the oblivious girl of his dreams (Bridget Moynahan) and uses his considerable wit to evade authorities (an Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke). Niccol adds a brother character to this formula, a sensitive cokehead played by the soulful but not at all Ukranian-looking Jared Leto.
Orlov is the sort of role Jack Nicholson might have had in the 70s: funny, ironic, slick and fast-talking. Cage runs with it; no one can work up a manic, paranoid sweat the way he can, while making it look utterly natural. Moynahan and Leto never quite convince, but Ian Holm and Sammi Rotibi lend an air of authenticity as a couple of roadblocks in Orlovs speedy ascent.
Lord of War is a moral movie about an amoral person, and its clear that Niccol isnt happy about the sale of arms to Third World countries. But he exceeds his reach as a filmmaker when he tries to implicate a larger power namely, the U.S. government in covert arms trading. Niccol simply doesnt provide enough evidence for his cause. Hes too busy getting caught up in the TV-movie-style conflicts brought by Orlovs brother and wife to make a convincing case against Reagan, Clinton or either of the Bushes. Niccol has skill and style to spare, as well as an ace lead performance by Cage. Had he added a little more finger-pointing and a little less soap opera, his film couldve been a classic.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].