The opening credit sequence of Lord Of War shows the complete "life" of a bullet from its own imagined perspective - its humble beginnings on an industrial production line, its journey in a crate from a Soviet port to an African one, its placement in the clip of a semiautomatic rifle during an urban battle and its final, fateful ride through the weapon's barrel, along the street, past some guerrillas, into the forehead of a young boy whose very last facial expression, filling the entire screen, is one of horrifically placid surprise. It is difficult to imagine both the banality and the dreadful teleology of the arms trade being captured with greater economy. The rest of the film, though less concise, proves just as powerful in its impact.

After fleeing with his family from Odessa in Soviet Ukraine to Little Odessa in New York, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) witnesses a gangland killing and decides that it is his destiny to fulfill the "human need" for guns and bullets. Soon, helped by his younger brother (Jared Leto) and armed with only his own duplicity, acumen and dumb luck, Yuri has become a highly successful international gunrunner. When he is not in his luxury New York penthouse with the model wife (Bridget Moynahan), who at least half-believes she is married to a transport executive, he is traveling from one war zone to the next, sleeping with beautiful young women, bribing everyone from African border guards to the top brass of the US military, outwitting a business rival (Ian Holm), outrunning a dedicated Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) and hobnobbing with psychotic dictators like the Liberian President Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his cannibal son (Sammi Rotibi). For Yuri, it is just what he is good at, but even if he is able to cocoon himself from the anonymous thousands who are the casualties of his merchandise, the toll that his trade eventually takes on his nearest and dearest proves to be the bullet with his name on it.

Copy picture

Lord Of War is, like Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2003), the tale of a charismatic and fast-thinking con artist, who manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuer for almost the entire time. Yet if Spielberg deployed a full arsenal of family values, boyhood nostalgia and tear-inducing hokum to distract the viewer's attention from any notion that his (real-life) protagonist was essentially a sociopathic criminal leaving a trail of victims in his wake, writer/director Andrew (Gattaca) Niccol takes a far more responsible approach to his character's deeds and their terrible consequences.

Yuri might seduce others with his undoubted charm and humour (indeed his quick wit saves his life on several occasions), but there is always a tension in the film between Yuri's attempts to keep his own hands clean of the death and destruction that his weapons bring and his uncomfortable complicity in such atrocities. All this makes him a complex, conflicted character who must concoct an endless series of evasions, prevarications and justifications to convince himself as much as others of his innocence, even if no one is ever really fooled by his act, himself least of all. Cage finds the perfect balance between Yuri's winning salesmanship and latent self-loathing in a crucial but demanding role that more than makes up for the gung-ho vacuity of last year's National Treasure.

In the end though, Yuri is just a convenient dramatic fiction to guide us through the moral minefield of the international arms trade and, while he makes for an engagingly amoral antihero, the primary target of Lord Of War is the realities of the gun market and the shadowy connections betweens its legal and illegal wings. Niccol's satire is aimed in particular at Hollywood's fetishisation of firearms - Andre Baptiste's son asks Yuri for "the gun of Rambo" - and at US involvement in covert weapons smuggling operations for both political and financial gain at the cost of countless all-too-real human lives. No wonder the filmmakers were unable to secure financing from America studios.

Lord Of War is a cynical film about an even more cynical trade, revealing just how little moral difference there is between the Western suit who sells a firearm and the savage tin pot dictator who pulls its trigger.

Satire is rarely so hard-hitting, or high calibre.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2005
Share this with others on...
Lord Of War packshot
The cynical dark world of an unscrupulous arms dealer.
Amazon link

Read more Lord Of War reviews:

The Exile ****1/2
John Gallagher ****
Paul Allen ***1/2

Director: Andrew Niccol

Writer: Andrew Niccol

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ian Holm, Eugene Lazarev, Eamonn Walker, Sammi Ratibi

Year: 2005

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database: