Ostensibly intended to be a revelatory look at the illegal international gunrunning trade, Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War is little more than an ammunition-littered variation on Blow in which Ukrainian arms dealer Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) finds fortune, respect, and the fulfillment of all his dreams by selling caches of missiles and assault rifles to the planet’s evil dictators. Like Ted Demme’s fancifully preposterous (and fictitious) biopic of legendary cocaine smuggler George Jung, Niccol’s latest attempts to pose as both an insider introduction to an illicit economy and a portrait of the dashing, charismatic and—most importantly—blameless fellow who happened to fortuitously fall into the business but never did anything other than provide a vital service demanded by society. This fictional Horatio Alger story (which, production notes claim, is “based on fact”) wants to have its rocket launcher and fire it too, celebrating its shady protagonist’s gumption and gregariousness while also, by film’s conclusion, depicting him as irrevocably damned. Unlike Yuri’s reliable merchandise, however, Niccol’s supposedly explosive exposé misfires with every other shot.
Before all the rapid-fire political and personal moralizing begins punching holes in its glamorous wheeling-and-dealing fun, Lord of War focuses on Yuri’s self-narrated rise to the top of the military-weapons food chain, a process begun by shunning his immigrant parents’ quiet restaurateur lives in Brighton Beach, New York for the high-flying life of trafficking Uzis, grenades and—after the fall of the Cold War, which resulted in Soviet stockpiles becoming readily available for sale—warplanes, tanks, and the ever-popular AK-47. As conceived by Niccol, Yuri decides to start selling black market artillery because, well, mainly because its just more appealing and profitable than cooking borscht in the family’s food joint alongside loose-cannon brother Vitaly (a pleasurably wound-up Jared Leto). It’s a facile characterization bereft of motivation and undone by the accent-less Cage’s typically smug, cooler-than-God routine, and thus the overriding impression left by the visually eye-catching film’s setup is that Yuri is a passive participant in his own story, an arrogant cipher whose immersion in this shadowy world of money and murder is a process happening to him rather than something he’s actively seeking to accomplish.
Niccol’s globetrotting script takes Yuri to, among other hotspots, his Ukrainian homeland to buy armaments from his greedy Uncle Dmitri (Eugene Lazarev) and to Liberia, where he becomes the favorite supplier to charmingly genocidal warlord Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his insane son Jr. (Sammi Rotibi), the latter of whom desperately wants to own Rambo’s gun. As he becomes more and more entrenched in his wretched career, the film begins to present Yuri as a man so wrapped up in his own elaborate deceptions about the legitimacy of his business—“A necessary evil,” is Yuri’s climactic justification for his actions—that, unlike Ian Holm’s competing cretin Simeon Weisz (who always takes sides when doing business), he eventually loses his moral compass and the ability to decipher between right and wrong. Soon thereafter, reveling in Yuri’s newfound stature and wealth comes to a close (sob sob) as the investigation of a pesky Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke, back in Training Day‘s righteous tough-guy mode), drug-addicted Vitaly’s pleas to give up the biz, and the escalating suspicions of his vapid beauty queen trophy wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan) soon conspire to create in Yuri something approaching a conscience.
Niccol understands that arms dealing is an intrinsic part of modern-day militarism but never quite gets over the fact that this isn’t shocking (or even particularly new) news. And his faux-illuminating claim that—gasp!—the U.S. government (personified by a decorated general always shot in malevolent shadow) might also sometimes avail itself of characters like Yuri is a bombshell without any concussive impact. By peppering us with the idea that all governments engage in this ugly retail racket, the film wags its finger at the reigning superpowers while simultaneously softening the despicable Yuri into someone who’s merely doing a highly in-demand dirty job. Sure, Yuri experiences familial fallout and some problems with the law for his refusal to quit his lucrative gig, and these injurious developments are meant to show that, despite his ability to evade prison and keep raking in the cash, he’s a lost, soulless man. But there’s hypocrisy in asking us, on the one hand, to despise national policies and, on the other hand, to empathize with (as well as genuinely like, at least during the first two-thirds) the free-market cog Yuri, whose behavior is portrayed as inevitable and, therefore, at least partially excusable. Although Lord of War condemns gunrunning, it nonetheless ultimately winds up glorifying the sordid, pathetic Yuri before giving him a pretty mild slap on the wrist.