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Cage succeeds in Lord of War

By Lady Liberty
web posted September 19, 2005

Lord of War

** 1/2 out of ****

Lord of WarI'd heard little about Lord of War until the week of its release. At that time, one of the first things I heard about the film was that it was anti-gun. If it were, it wouldn't be surprising. After all, the denizens of Hollywood are far more often liberal than not, and among the other hallmarks of their typical liberalism is a visceral — and often unreasoning — hatred of firearms. Based on the premise that the movie was anti-gun, I considered urging a boycott (it takes quite a bit for me to suggest people don't buy tickets purely on political grounds, but this movie sounded like a boycott might be warranted). I wrestled, though, with my conscience: How could I urge people to boycott a movie based on its message if I wasn't familiar with its message myself? I finally determined that I had to have more information before I could comment intelligently on the film, and so I reluctantly bought my ticket.

Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is the man eventually destined to become the titular Lord of War (a nickname given him by one of his biggest clients). But in his early years, he's very much a man searching for a mission and for success as are so many other immigrants to America. Yuri and his family left the Ukraine at a time when that country was still being ground under the heel of Soviet domination. Settling in Brighton Beach with a host of their fellow countrymen, the family opens a small restaurant and begins a new life in the US. Yuri, however, isn't satisfied. Neither his is younger brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto).

Even in his early 20's, Yuri remains unsure of his path until the day he witnesses a hit by the Russian mafia. He's suddenly stricken with the notion that people open restaurants because other people will always need to eat, and that people buy guns because there are some people who will always want or need to kill others. Excited by the idea, Yuri manages to parlay a local Jewish contact into a small arms deal involving Israeli uzis. Although the deal has its iffy moments, Yuri has another epiphany when he discovers he's good at it.

As his business grows, Yuri brings Vitaly into the venture. His younger brother doesn't have the talent for such deals, but he does have something Yuri soon starts to lose: a conscience. Thanks to that trait, Vitaly soon finds himself addicted to drugs.Yuri, though, has another obsession: Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a beautiful model he's worshipped for years. Eventually, Yuri is able to use some of his substantial profits to engineer a meeting and courtship of the model who he bowls over with charm, wealth, and — unknown to her, of course — a good deal of pretense.

Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) isn't fooled by Yuri's pretenses, though. Unfortunately, though he does his best, he's not able to back up what he knows about Yuri with the evidence to prove it. And so Yuri's business continues to grow until the day that the Soviet Union falls and offers Yuri the biggest windfall he's ever had. Taking advantage of family contacts still living in the Ukraine, Yuri puts a deal together that rivals the largest ever made. Scooping Soviet goods out from under the grasp of infamous arms dealer Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), Yuri entices the bloodthirsty president of Liberia, Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker), with a virtual buffet of weaponry.

Though Yuri's wealth grows by leaps and bounds as does his reputation, he stands to lose much else as his lifestyle grows more and more dangerous both to himself and to those around him. As always, though, Yuri's love and patience for his brother and his adoration of his wife and young son are relegated to the back of his mind when the opportunity for the next deal comes along. Now Valentine is closing in, Vitaly is reaching a crisis of conscience, Ava begins to believe that there might be more to her husband than she knows, and Yuri finds himself nearer to destruction than he's ever been. But the deal must go on...

Although the main characters and specific storyline are fiction, the film's director and writer, Andrew Niccol (previous Niccol offerings include the underrated Gattaca) points out that almost all of the events depicted in the film have actual real life precedents. Yuri himself is, as it happens, a composite of five different arms dealers. The civil wars and other violence in Liberia that extend from 1980 and into the present are real. So, obviously, is the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent looting of weapons from former member countries (some $32 billion on arms from Ukraine alone are estimated to have been stolen and likely resold from 1982 to 1992). Although there are moments when Niccol's script does get a bit preachy, as a whole, it's based in truth and conveys that truth in a realistic and impactful way.

Nicolas Cage is never less than very, very good, and his depiction of Yuri Orlov manages something a lesser actor couldn't: making a man who is, in many ways, entirely amoral a sympathetic character. Jared Leto, too, is good. (My only complaint concerning Cage and Leto really faults the casting director in that the two look so completely different that casting them as brothers actually overtly takes away from the otherwise believable storyline.) Bridget Moynahan is, however, well cast as the beautiful and naive Ava, and Eamonn Walker is positively menacing as the capricious Baptiste. Ethan Hawke has little screen time, but is just fine in his role, and Ian Holm once again brings his considerable experience to bear as a genteel and yet ruthless international arms dealer.

Lord of War is violent, to be sure, and virtually all of that violence involves guns. But in fairness, virtually all of the violence in countries such as Afghanistan and Liberia does involve firearms. The commentary offered by the film as a whole is far less anti-gun than it is against the immorality — or worse, the amorality — of those who would sell to all comers even knowing the end result will involve massacres rather than defense, and genocide instead of any noble cause (of course, the despots who purchase these weapons are even more to blame, but the movie isn't intended to shine the brightest light on them). And the movie is honest enough to place blame on those legitimate political regimes that export weapons of war even as it highlights the culpability of individual arms dealers whose very business is death.

Lord of War is, in many ways, a good film not least because it highlights some very dirty dealings that, while very real, have also remained largely hidden from the general public. The production values are superb (filmed on location in New York City, South Africa, and the Czech Republic, the backgrounds add considerably to the reality of the film); the acting is top notch, and the direction and editing are good (pay particular attention to the opening sequence of the movie involving the life of a bullet from manufacture to gunshot, all depicted from the point of the bullet). The script is dramatic, but with surprising moments of genuine humor (it has a few moments where the writer is obviously trying much too hard, but thankfully they truly are few). Better still, while entertaining, Lord of War offers some educational value I've not seen available anywhere else. As such, I'm pleasantly surprised to find I'm recommending you see the movie rather than suggesting any boycotts.

POLITICAL NOTES: Given its storyline, the political implications of Lord of War are many.

In the least sense, there are two moments in the film that seem to address some anti-gun sentiment directly. One of them is the moment an Interpol agent tries to compare the shooting of a New York couple during an armed robbery with the deals done by Yuri (the agent comments that the bad guy in the former case got his gun illegally, and that Yuri himself is selling thousands of arms to thousands of bad guys) when, in reality, the two have little in common other than that there's a murderer at the fore. The other is a poignant scene where Yuri takes a toy gun from his son's room and throws it in the trash (when taken in context, this actually makes perfect and very sad sense). These two moments — one of them regrettable in its naivité — aren't enough to warrant a boycott by any stretch of the imagination.

On a much larger scale, the political machinations behind many of these supposed independent gun dealers is shocking. If you see the film, keep in the back of your mind that the penultimate scene in the movie is based on a true incident (I won't tell you what it is so as not to spoil the story for you, but I assure you that you'll likely be stunned when you see it as you recall its basis in reality). It's also truly ironic to take note of the fact that the world's five biggest arms dealers are nations rather than individuals and that (here's the ironic part) those five are the five members of the UN Security Council (as an aside, does that begin to illustrate to you just what a farce the UN really is?).

Though the oft-quoted line "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is often sarcastically used by those who hate or fear firearms, there's a good deal of truth to it here. Those who most violate the humanity of others with their guns would do so if they had to use sticks and stones (or the machetes we see in one particularly horrifying scene). The bottom line is that getting rid of the guns would do nothing to stop the fighting. It's the people in charge who will have to go before any truly positive changes can be made. To pretend that eliminating guns will eliminate the problem is both naive and entirely ignorant of the facts; worse, getting rid of the guns would make those few who might offer a defense against the bad guys utterly defenseless. Disarming them is at least as morally wrong as is the rest of this horrifying situation.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Lord of War is rated R for "strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality." Some of the violence is quite graphic; some of the implied violence is, believe it or not, even more so. The drug use, too, is as graphic as it gets. On those grounds alone, I certainly don't recommend Lord of War for those under 16. But for those mature enough to handle the violence, Lord of War will offer much to talk about. And frankly, talking a little more about political realities like these couldn't hurt anybody, and might actually end up improving in some small way some of the awful circumstances found in different places around the world.

Just Like Heaven

** out of ****

Just Like HeavenAfter seeing Lord of War, can you blame me for having some interest in a light comedy this weekend? From the previews I'd seen, Just Like Heaven sounded like just the right movie to fill the bill.

Dr. Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is a young resident at a San Francisco hospital whose life is her work. In fact, she's so entirely dedicated that she has no life other than her work. Her sister, Abby (Dina Waters) has been urging her to socialize more for some time. Even her mentor, Fran (Rosalind Chao) tried to get her to slow down a little and smell the roses. But Elizabeth is fighting to become an attending physician at the hospital, and her chief rival, Dr. Brett Rushton (Ben Shenkman), isn't likely to cut her any slack.

After some 26 hours on duty, Elizabeth finally leaves the hospital to have dinner with Abby and her family. She's a bit reluctant to go given that Abby has fixed her up — again — but she heads out the door in good humor. Unfortunately, a serious car accident prevents her from reaching her destination.

Landscape architect David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) is looking for a new apartment, and finally finds the perfect place available for a sub-lease. The problem is that a young woman nobody else can see insists that the apartment is hers and that David must leave immediately. He refuses to go; so, therefore, does the apparition. Eventually, he learns that the woman is Elizabeth; she, in turn, learns that there's something entirely not right with her existence. But what can either of them do about it?

David first seeks help from his friend Jack (Donal Logue), who happens to be a psychiatrist and who also happens to be very worried about David. Thanks to a serious emotional trauma in David's recent past, Jack fears David's hallucinations are the result of too much drinking or, perhaps, even from the trauma itself. David disagrees, however, and ends up looking for assistance in some less conventional places. He finally meets Darryl (Jon Heder), a young man who works at an occult book store. Darryl not only has some expertise in books on the subject, but can also feel the presence of spirits.

David's dedication, Elizabeth's desperation, and the best conflicting attentions of their various friends and acquaintances begin to result in some answers. But if they do find a solution to Elizabeth's predicament, will David lose her forever? And if they don't, will the end result be the same?

Reese Witherspoon has made a real name for herself as an actress in light, romantic comedies. Mark Ruffalo, too, has a reputation for playing sweet but rough-around-the-edges leading men in such films. It's thus no surprise that the two acquit themselves well here. Similarly, the story itself contains few surprises. But despite its implausibility and predictability, you'll be hard pressed not to find yourself immersed in the tale of this ill-fated couple, and you'll almost certainly find yourself rooting for them.

There have been movies something like Just Like Heaven in the past, and there will doubtless be more. Some of those movies have been just plain bad. It's films like Just LIke Heaven, though, that ensure there will continue to be movies something like it far into the future. The bottom line: If you're looking to learn something or to be provoked to serious thought, go see Lord of War. But if you want simply to take a happy break, you could do far worse than spending some 90 minutes watching Just Like Heaven.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Just Like Heaven is rated PG-13 for "some sexual content." Personally, I think a PG rating would have been perfectly adequate here. The story is sweet; the "sexual content" referenced is overt, but involves no nudity or particularly crude behavior. Granted, the plot itself is implausible. That doesn't mean the movie isn't an enjoyable piece of fluff for romantics of, say, ten and up (as an aside the showing I happened to attend was, for some unknown reason, populated with a disproportionate percentage of elderly women; the conversations I overhead on my way out of the theatre made it clear they'd liked the show).

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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