Yuri Orlov is a gunrunner. An arms dealer. An amoral mercenary who supplies all the world’s major conflicts with the weapons and ammunition they need to enact their violence. He says he doesn’t take sides. He’ll sell to both sides of the same war, if possible. When a gun is fired, he doesn’t hear BANG. He hears KA-CHING.
This is the anti-hero of “Lord of War,” a dark, uneven satire written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Niccol has written and directed two previous films, “Gattaca” and “Simone,” and he wrote another one, “The Truman Show.” All of those films had lofty concepts centering around a big lie of some kind. In this case, the protagonist is both the liar and the victim. He’s lying to himself.
Nicolas Cage plays Yuri, a product of Little Odessa, a Ukrainian neighborhood of New York’s Brighton Beach, where he saw plenty of Russian mafia activity during his formative years. It occurred to him as a young man that someone who trafficked in guns and ammo would be assured a wide customer base. The urge to kill one another is almost as basic as the urge to eat, and nearly as ancient, too.
So in the early 1980s, he begins his operation, taking his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) along for assistance. Yuri tells us in narration that he supplied weapons to almost all your big-league despots and warlords in the ’80s. (“I never sold to Osama bin Laden. Not on any moral grounds; back then he was always bouncing checks.”) Simon Weisz (Ian Holm), the richest underground-arms dealer in the world, tells Yuri he can’t do business that way, selling to absolutely everyone. “You have to take sides,” he says. Yuri ignores him.
The story takes us through the ’80s into the ’90s. The end of the Cold War dried up some markets for Yuri, but as luck would have it, Africa was brimming with dictators and madmen who needed weapons. It puts him on the wrong side of the law, but the U.S. federal agent (Ethan Hawke) who doggedly pursues him can never get anything to stick. (Conveniently for Yuri, and for the film’s storyline, this particular lawman is too by-the-books to even BEND the law in order to catch him.)
Yuri has a wife, Ava (Bridget Moynahan), who doesn’t ask questions and who enjoys her wealthy lifestyle. She’s from his old neighborhood, though she doesn’t remember him. “She didn’t know I existed,” he says. “I was starting to think she had a point.”
Sharp writing like that, and some deft cinematographic tricks — like the opening sequence, which shows us a bullet’s point of view from production to firing — suggest a film much better than this one actually is. For while at first it seems to be a dark satire, it shifts later, when Yuri develops something of a crisis of conscience — a fact that is meaningless to us because we don’t care about him as a character. He’s not a person, he’s a type, and so his inner turmoil is dramatically ineffective.
But Cage is good, somewhere between his Very Serious self (e.g., “Leaving Las Vegas”) and his Wacky Unhinged Self (e.g., “Honeymoon in Vegas”). To the extent that the caustic, pessimistic script allows it, he remains in touch with the audience, giving us what we want: a few grim laughs and some scary ideas. I just wish the film made its points about guns and governments better, and less heavy-handedly.
B- (2 hrs., 2 min.; )