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Lord of War (2005)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“The first and most important rule of gun-running is: never get shot with your own merchandise.”

Andrew Niccol makes great movies. From writing the scripts of such films as The Truman Show and The Terminal, to writing and directing Gattaca, and now writing, directing and producing Lord Of War; Niccol's contributions to some of the best movies made in the last few years have begun a new legacy which may eventually compare well with those of prior legends of film. Often Niccol's films explore the unconquerable best in humanity. Don't watch this movie expecting to see those themes presented as they were explored in his previous films. Although not every character in this film exclusively devotes themselves to pursuits usually associated with “the dark side,” the majority of this movie's focus shows some of the least appealing aspects of today's world. Unlike most of his prior film work, this movie does not merit the label “feel good movie.”

The film begins with Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) holding a briefcase, his back to the camera, in front of a smoking ruin. Yuri turns and gives some statistics about firearms and human demographics: “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is . . .” here Yuri takes a drag from his cigarette, “How do we arm the other 11?” One might think that from this beginning the film would go on to present a standard NRA screed, with Yuri playing out a part Charlton Heston might have enjoyed. However, if one thought that, one would be committing an error. One early clue: in that scene Yuri smokes a cigarette. “Heroic figures” don't smoke in Hollywood's movies. Even this early, at best, Yuri seems an anti-hero.

The scene changes and the movie's excellent musical soundtrack carries the opening notes of Buffalo Springfield's classic: “For What It's Worth.” Credits roll while video footage shows an ammunition factory. The factory appears to produce large quantities of 7.62 X 39mm (“commie ammo”), a caliber of ammunition used extensively by Kalashnikov as well as other firearms. The scenes follow the life of one cartridge from its manufacture to its eventual use.

After this tragic sequence, the camera returns to Yuri, who assures us: “You don't have to worry. I'm not going to tell you a pack of lies to make me look good. I'm just going to tell you what happened.” Yuri narrates his own story, telling how he came to “run guns.” Specifically, he tells how he became a relatively wealthy seller of large quantities of military style weaponry mainly to governments in parts of the world which have arms embargoes. However, he did not start his life as a “high roller.” He came to America, specifically Brighton Beach, immigrating with his family from Russia, which then was called the Soviet Union. He discusses his early infatuation with Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) as he gives a summation of his teen years and introduces his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and parents: mother Irina (Shake Tukhmanyan) and father Anatoly (Jean-Pierre Nshanian).

The Russian mob influenced daily life in “Little Odessa,” where his family operates a restaurant. Yuri got early exposure to murder and mayhem. After one experience in which we see the subject of a “mob hit” successfully defend himself with a handgun, Yuri decides that, like his parents with their restaurant, he too will make his living serving a “basic human need.” Yuri tells how he rose through the lower echelons of gray market gun sales. The narration always carries a sense of irony, which Nicolas Cage delivers beautifully.

Yuri recruits his younger brother to join him in his new business. They become “brothers in arms.” During his early rise while at a Berlin Arms Fair, the sort of trade conference whose nature many in the American media seem to believe also applies to local gun shows, Yuri meets and gets snubbed by Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), the leading arms trader in the business. Simeon takes sides in his sales, where Yuri styles himself “an equal opportunity merchant of death.” In pursuing his career, along with his regular customers -- which eventually will include the dictatorial leader of an African nation (Eamonn Walker) -- he often meets stiff opposition from an Interpol agent: Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke).

Yuri uses the money he makes to meet and impress his dream girl, the supermodel: Ava Fontaine. After a short romance they marry, and start a family, though she knows little about his professional life.

Eventually, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Yuri exploits a big opportunity: a relative --  General Dmitri Orlov (Eugene Lazarev) -- in the former Soviet Army with access to its weaponry. Using his special contact, Yuri rises to the top of his field. That much only tells the beginning of his story, but I hope enough to catch your interest. As noted above, I have long enjoyed Andrew Niccol's films, but I have not spent much time watching Nicolas Cage's performances. After this film, I will change that habit.

Events in Lord of War may often superficially seem to play into the strategy of many who would like to restrict access to firearms. However, a deeper look shows that such restrictions, e.g., arms embargoes, have actually laid the basis for the many tragedies portrayed so movingly in the film. The final scenes lay out clearly why the world has slaughter in genocidal scales as featured in the daily news. A familiar, but non-personal, villain can be found at the scene of most of these crimes. Weaponry, especially small arms, play a far less significant role than the institutions which lie behind and benefit from the horrors found in current events. As the movie length “flashback” concludes, the final scene shifts back to the setting of the opening shots. Yuri adds a final insight to the one with which he began the film. For anyone who still has managed to escape what seem to me inevitable conclusions, text flows across the closing scene supplying facts which bare the huge truth behind everything in the movie. I give Lord of War my highest recommendation.

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