Anyone who has fired a rifle will remember the recoil. Indeed, novice marksmen are often surprised at its effect, which sends many shots far astray of their intended marks. Now helming his third film, writer/director Andrew Niccol ought to know by now that movies also have a kick. But with his newest picture, Lord of War, which stars Nicolas Cage as an international gun runner, Niccol doesn’t just miss his target–he can’t seem to figure out what it is.
Ostensibly a dark satire of the world of illegal arms sales, Lord of War sprays uneven rounds in too many directions, swerving between caustic black humor, overly earnest family drama, and bland thriller tropes. Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Brooklyn immigrant who smells profit in selling guns to hometown gangsters but quickly moves into the more lucrative international market. With the help of his druggie brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), Yuri builds a successful career dealing black-market arms, woos his childhood crush Ava (Bridget Moynihan) and avoids Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the pesky Interpol agent on his tail.
The problem is that Niccol never decides which conflict he wants to drive the film, and the result is a firestorm of confusing narrative threads that ricochet haphazardly through their beats without a clear sense of purpose. Niccol seems to think Lord of War is to gun running what Goodfellas was to the Mafia–an ironic, hyperstylized journey through two decades of guns, money, and drugs. But he struggles to connect the many characters and plot strands. Ethan Hawke seems lost as a generic, no-nonsense Interpol agent. He’s conspicuously absent for long stretches, but always arrives just in time to deliver self-righteous sermons on the evils of arms dealing. (Sample line: “You get rich by giving the poorest people on the planet the means to keep killing each other!”)
Vitaly’s drug-addled scenes feel tacked on, more moral than story. They might as well have been replaced with lectures on how arms trafficking and drug dealing are equally despicable. It doesn’t help that Leto is essentially rehashing his slacker addict role from Requiem for a Dream–minus that film’s compassion and tenderness.
Cage unloads his usual bag of nervous tics and snarky line readings, but the stilted script forces him into too many moments of hammy, heartfelt sincerity. His manic energy serves the movie’s black humor well, but it can’t make the transition into the more sentimental bits where he must come to terms with how his lies have affected Ava.
The movie hits closest to the mark when delivering cynical commentary on the everyday absurdities of gun running. In one scene, Yuri complains how bad it is for business when countries don’t follow through on their promises of war. Later, speaking about an airplane from which he quickly unloaded his arms cache, he says “You’ll find more guns on a plane full of Quakers.”
Niccol’s technical devices display similar wit. From the time-lapse strip down of a cargo plane to an AK-47 stock that dings with the sound of a cash register, there’s no shortage of stylistic aplomb. Perhaps most striking is the opening credit sequence, a single take which follows the path of a bullet through production, shipping, sales, and, finally, the barrel of a gun pointed at the head of an African child. It’s not exactly subtle, but the visual invention can’t be denied.
Children appear in the film regularly, but only as props on which to hang anti-gun sentiment. Yuri describes shooting an AK-47 by saying “It’s so easy a child can use it. And they do.” One African warlord employs armies of preteens, calling them Kalashnikov Kids. Later, a child with a missing arm naively asks Yuri if it will grow back. Niccol probably thinks Lord of War is a powerful anti-gun screed, but his movie never gets beyond the simplistic, misleading idea that guns equal dead children.
The movie even goes so far as to blame the U.S. government for perpetuating third-world violence. Yuri never misses an opportunity to remind people that the United States is the world’s biggest arms dealer, and the movie clearly implies that the U.S. uses black-market gun runners as fronts to hide shady weapons deals with warlords and dictators.
And of course, no high-minded Hollywood message film would be complete these days without lobbing a few grenades at that villain of villains, the market economy. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yuri finds a massive supply of weaponry for his business, and he calls his dealings with the Soviets “a crash course in capitalism.” Later, a Soviet commander chastises him for being “too greedy.” Only in Hollywood can a major commercial venture simultaneously denounce greed and count box office receipts.
Lord of War’s smug politics might be easier to handle if they weren’t delivered in such a lurching, graceless manner. But Niccol can’t keep track of his characters or subplots, and he never makes it clear what he wants his movie to be about. Although it manages a few clever satirical shots, Lord of War is mostly a misfire.
– Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director for Competitive Enterprise Institute.