Monday 10 July 2006

Monday 10 July 2006
DIRECTOR: Andrew Niccol WRITER: Andrew Niccol
CAST: Nicolas Cage (Yuri Orlov), Bridget Moynahan (Ava Fontaine), Jared Leto (Vitaly Orlov), Ethan Hawke (Jack Valentine), Ian Holm (Simeon Weisz), more...

"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: how do we arm the other 11?" -- Yuri Orlov

So begins Lord Of War, a quite brilliant drama from talented New Zealand writer-director Andrew Niccol; most notable for high-concept sci-fi movies like Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show (1998) and S1M0NE (2002). Along with M. Night Shyamalan, Niccol has been a modern purveyor of quality sci-fi, so it's unusual that Lord Of War is such a drastic 180-degree turn into semi-realism.

Lord Of War is a fictional biopic of Yuri Orlov (Cage), a Ukrainian living in America with his family, including a faux-Jewish father, who decides to become a "gun runner" after witnessing the attempted robbery of a restaurant. Together with his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), Yuri quickly becomes a prominent worldwide arms dealer (providing arms to 8 of the world's top 10 war zones), and success brings him untold riches and a trophy wife... but do all good things come to an end?

Interestingly, Lord Of War doesn't really have an anti-gun message, rather it presents an entertaining account of an arms dealer's "adventures" as Yuri tries to sell post-Cold War Russian arsenal to African warlords. Niccol's script contains plenty of interesting facts and arguments for (and against) the "necessary evil" of trades dealing, all littered within the central story of Yuri trying to balance a normal home life with his extraordinary working life...

Nicolas Cage is always a very engaging actor to watch in movies, able to give serious performances (Leaving Las Vegas) and quirky performances (Con Air) with equal gusto. In Lord Of War, he gets to walk the tightrope between the two, giving Yuri a fundamentally plausible personality, yet with an inherent charm and eccentricity. He's a great anti-hero, and while we never totally agree with his pro-war view, we can understand that real-world politics means the argument is decidedly grey...

The cast are all wonderful, particularly Bridget Moynahan (Ava Fontaine) who turns a perfunctory role into something very subtle and engaging. Jared Leto as Vitaly is also very good, eventually proving to be the most active moral compass to the movie, and Ian Holm plays against type as a quietly sinister rival arms dealer. Ethan Hawke is his usual intense self, being the movie's most vocal anti-gun voice.

Niccol is foremost a writer in many peoples' eyes (despite having directed his own scripts for Gattaca and S1M0NE), but it’s with Lord Of War that he really breaks out. His style is quite reminiscent of Ridley Scott and David Fincher, bringing a fluid style and punchy colour scheme to life. His camera flourishes and framing of shots is beautiful, and I hope Niccol gets to direct more things in the future. It would be interesting to see if he can direct other peoples' stories with just as much energy and style.

The opening sequence following the "life span" of a bullet -– from factory production line, to the head of an African child – is remarkable and charged filmmaking.

Overall, I found Lord Of War to be a very entertaining story immaculately told by Niccol and expertly played by the cast. It's refreshing to see a movie tackle a topic with such relevance to our lives (no matter how hidden this underworld remains), yet also refuse to simply bash us over the head with a single viewpoint. Lord Of War is perhaps too "cinematic" to really get a under the skin, as it's more interested in providing an entertaining story than present a wholly accurate documentary-style account of the arms trade. As such, I'm not sure how much of the movie is a fantastical exaggeration of this life, and how much is frighteningly true. Maybe that was the point.

Niccol's movie entertains and educates at the same time, something a more serious-minded version would perhaps have struggled with. Lord Of War certainly made me consider the arms trade far more than I would usually, and for that I think Niccol has succeeded in his goal.


For such a great under-the-radar movie, it's disheartening to find the DVD given such a poor release...

PICTURE: Niccol films things with a beautiful eye, and the picture transfer for the movie is appropriately gorgeous. Sumptuous landscapes, inky black nights and great detail in every scene.

SOUND: The DD5.1 sound mix is pretty good, although the rear speakers aren't used quite as often as you'd expect. Throughout the film I was only ever aware of them for distant gunshot sound effects. A real missed opportunity given the movie's topic.


As I said, this is a very disappointing release, made even worse with the inclusion of an unskippable Mars bar advert before the main menu appears. A satire of QVC, with two presenters selling an AK-47, almost makes up for this, however.

The animated menu screens are weak copies of the opening bullet sequence, giving the DVDs presentation a somewhat naff air. A shame, as the movie itself is so slick and deserved something more professional.

Director's Commentary: this is the only extra feature on this release of Lord Of War, and Andrew Niccol gives an insightful view into making the movie. He's a little dry sounding, but certainly knows his stuff and provides plenty of information.