Lord of War

February 1, 2006

There are movies that are remembered for one line of dialogue, or a piece of virtuosic cinematography. Perhaps when everyone has stopped arguing about whether Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War is a heavy-handed political satire that fails, or a darkly-comic dissection of the international arms trade, they will still remember the film’s opening sequence.

On some anonymous street in the middle east, we meet Yuri Orlov, arms dealer, played by Nicolas Cage. He stands on a virtual carpet of spent bullet cartridges. Introductions over, he begins the leisurely narrative that is kept up throughout the film – an amoral, introductory lecture on the fortunes of the arms trade, related with the calmness of the nightly stock market report.

As the credits kick in, we are transported to a Russian arms factory, watching the manufacture of a single bullet. Taking the bullet’s point-of-view, the camera leads us through an assembly line, into a crate, across the other side of the world, and into a gun in a lawless African republic. The sequence ends with the bullet being fired into the brain of a black youth.

This is Yuri’s business, and business is booming. He doesn’t fire the guns, he doesn’t take sides. He has no particular desire for people to keep murdering each other. His only consideration is the law of supply and demand. So long as there is a massive demand for weapons, there is money to be made. The killing will go on, someone has to make a buck, and it might as well be him.  Yuri is part entrepreneur, part travelling salesman. “One out of every twelve people in the world owns a weapon,” he tells us. “My only question is: How do we arm the other eleven?”

That is, indeed, Yuri’s only question – so long as his business continues to prosper. He has been described as a “sociopath”, but his character is more complex. His apparent indifference to the carnage he precipitates, is matched by a passionate attachment to his family. He treats his activities as a game of chess that is played with law enforcement officers. But his business takes him to the most dangerous places on earth, and there are moments in this story when his detachment is threatened and finally broken.

Yuri is a boy from the poor Russian neighbourhood of New York, whose parents pretended to be Jews to assist their migration from the Ukraine. He catches a glimpse of his future career when he witnesses a mafia hit in a local eatery. Just as people need food, he thinks, so they need weapons. He starts small, but through his own shrewdness and willingness to take risks, rises to the top of his profession. He woos and wins a trophy wife, (Bridget Moynahan), and tries to make a job for his unstable younger brother, Vitaly,(Jared Leto).

The most memorable scenes in the film are set in the trouble spots of the world, particularly Liberia, where Yuri strikes deals with Andre Baptiste Snr., the local dictator – a truly menacing portrayal by Eamonn Walker. Yuri struggles to maintain his sangfroid as the tide of psychopathic violence keeps steadily rising around him. Always one step behind is Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the only unconvincing character in this black Bildungsroman of a movie. We are so immersed in Yuri’s amoral logic, that any self-conscious defender of the law comes across as a cardboard cut-out.

After seeing Lord of War I took a browse through the American reviews, and was surprised by the negative comments. Many critics seem too feel that any film on a subject such as international gun-running, must be a bleeding-heart political tirade. Some reviewers were frankly bored, as though they – and everyone else – already had a comprehensive knowledge of the arms trade. Some saw it as a Michael Moore-style assault on the Bush presidency.

Such responses say more about the insularity of the reviewers than the aims of the film. At one stage, Yuri quips that his biggest competitor is the President of the United States, but it is a statistical fact that America supplies more than forty percent of the arms sold around the world. These arms are marketed at trade fairs that resemble Las Vegas spectaculars, packed with razzle-dazzle and bikini-clad hostesses.

Many of the events of the film, including the trade fair, are true to life, even the outrageous hairs-breadth escapes that Yuri engineers when the law is on his tail. New Zealand-born director, Andrew Niccol, whose previous credits include the science fiction film, Gattaca, and the script for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, worked for two years to secure independent finance for the project. He based Yuri Orlov on a composite of five arms dealers, and met with real gun-runners who were just as co-operative and charming as their fictional counterpart.

Perhaps the real point of this story is that Yuri is a pragmatist. He takes the world as he finds it, without agonizing about what is right or wrong. In this, he is a perfect mirror of those corporate high-flyers who are willing to inflict any amount of damage on the human or natural environment in pursuit of profit. The guys from Enron, for instance, were not that different from Yuri, when they played Russian roulette with the Californian power grid. Where money is involved, morality has no meaning and death is commodified. Political and religious extremism can be a gold mine to the unscrupulous operator.

Even The Constant Gardener, which did for the drug companies what Lord of War does for arms dealers, added a Hollywood ending to John Le Carré’s typically bleak tale. Niccol’s film resists that option, never suggesting that good will inevitably triumph over evil. On the contrary, it tells us that in the political world there is no good and evil, only means and ends.

Published for The Diplomat, February 2006

Lord of War
Hoyts Cinemas (release date: 16 February 2006)