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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005


Fueling war just a business

Lord of War

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Andrew Niccol
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Where there's a will, there's a weapon" is the personal maxim of arms dealer Yuri Orlov and that's just one of the many suave lines you'll hear in the brilliant "Lord of War."

News photo
Nicholas Cage in "Lord of War"

A film that opens with a sequence showing the life of a single bullet (from a Russian factory assembly line to, ultimately, the forehead of a small boy in Africa), "Lord of War" never wavers from delivering this message: Contrary to what John Lennon sang, war will never be over because too many people prefer it that way.

In one scene, Yuri is going to work in his limo when he gets the bad news that one of his African clients are entering peace talks. "Whaaat?" yells Yuri, completely incensed. He, however, recovers quickly and reroutes the African shipment to the Balkans. "When the Bosnians says they're going to have a war, they keep their word!"

With his neat hair, dark suit and perpetual briefcase, Yuri resembles a textbook salesman who keeps track of his mileage, never smokes and remembers not only all of his clients' first names but those of their wives as well. But Yuri is slightly different: He's on "first-name basis with all of the world's dictators, despots and terrorist leaders," but he never gets too cozy with any of them ("They're just customers.")

Time and again he has witnessed his guns being used to massacre both soldiers and civilians, and he habitually walks through streets where little girls go around on stumps instead of limbs. His own personal mantra to get through these situations is, "It's not my war" and he moves on, making sure the cash is safe and inside his jacket pocket.

Yuri is the ultimate businessman, not a monster. At one point, he even tries to go legit by becoming an oil dealer.

In his own words he trades in arms because "I'm good at it." Apparently, that cancels out most moral compunctions.

Director/writer Andrew Niccol ("Gatacca," "S1m0ne") has created a ruthless expose of the international weapons market (complete with a depiction of a Berlin arms fair where suited dealers exchange business cards and babes in fishnet stockings pose on top of armored tanks) and he's done it with style and incredibly droll humor.

At times he's almost too clever. His characters hardly have time to gasp for air before they're delivering the next cutting witticism and in the eagerness to hear and, well, laugh at what they're saying, you almost forget that the events are based on facts and Yuri Orlov is a character fashioned from five, real-life arms dealers.

Cage is in top form here with a performance that's understated, clinical and a little self-deprecating. Yuri is a dedicated professional, and deeply appreciative of the technical engineering aspects of his merchandise. He's also aware of the damage they inflict and, consequently, he talks about machineguns in the way Woody Allen analyzes love relationships. When a Liberian soldier has a tantrum because his AK-47 gets jammed, Yuri is on hand to help fix the gun. "I'm sorry, they don't usually do that," he says. And when the Liberian genocidal dictator's trigger-happy son Andre Baptiste Jr. (Sammi Rotibi) requests "Rambo's machinegun," Yuri coolly retorts: "Rambo Part 1, 2 or 3?"

Yuri is right, he's good at what he does, maybe even the best. Never taking sides, he supplies whoever will pay up ("I never did business with Osama bin Laden. Not from any moral grounds . . . back then his checks always bounced") and this nonpolitical stance is what eventually gets him to the top rung after all rival gunrunners -- like an old-guard dealer (Ian Holm) who couldn't quite keep up with post-Cold War events -- fall off the ladder.

But then Yuri has a special kind of temperament whereas his kid brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto, in his best role ever), recruited by him to assist in the job, is woven from a different fabric. Unable to take witnessing the carnage and crushed by guilt, Vitaly drowns himself in alcohol and cocaine. Yuri sends him to a posh rehab center in New York and resumes business all alone, continuing to lie to his trophy, ex-model wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan) that he works in "international shipping." Ava, however, catches on and she's the only one who voices a conviction that just because he's good at something doesn't mean he should feel free to pursue it.

In the end, "Lord of War" shows us what gunrunning really boils down to: lying. Yuri can fool a custom official while looking him straight in the eye, the same way he can con zealous Interpol investigator Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) in the face of overwhelming evidence. From his earliest years, Yuri had known what it was to fabricate and fake. He and his family emigrated to the States from Ukraine on the pretext of being Jewish (they were really Roman Catholic), and then opened a Kosher restaurant in Brooklyn.

Yuri never lacked for bad examples, not in his family, not in O.J. Simpson (a particularly biting reference is made) and certainly not in his adopted country's government, which, after all, is the biggest arms exporter/warmonger on the planet. War it seems, is a long, long way from being over.

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