Writer-director Andrew Niccol has either never heard of or has chosen to ignore the old Hollywood dictum that insists "if you want to send a message, use Western Union." His "Lord of War" is unapologetically purposeful, a forceful film with a lot on its mind.
Unfortunately, the problem Niccol addresses -- the devastating consequences of the worldwide trade in weapons -- is a lot more involving than the story he's constructed around it. Any time you're watching a film in which the statistics in the voice-over have more intrinsic drama than the protagonists' lives, you know you're in trouble.
Who knew, for instance, that the gun shops in the U.S. outnumber the McDonald's? Or that, in the stat that opens the film, there are more than 550 million firearms now in circulation, one for every 12 people on the planet? "The only question," says arms dealer Yuri Orlov without a hint of sarcasm, "is how can we arm the other 11."
It's a mark of "Lord of War's" visual flair (it was shot by Amir Mokri) that Orlov, played by Nicolas Cage, makes this statement standing amid the smoldering rubble of a combat zone in an out-of-place suit and tie. The film's credits sequence, which follows a single bullet on its short life from factory assembly line to African shootout, is equally kinetic.
Filmmaker Niccol made his reputation as a writer: He did the script for "The Truman Show" and the original story for Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal," and he wrote and directed the offbeat science fiction "Gattaca." He makes the best use of that skill by using Orlov's life story -- apparently a composite of five real-life dealers -- to outline how the international arms trade functions.
Born in Ukraine, Orlov, his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and their parents emigrated to Brooklyn's Brighton Beach Russian community and opened a restaurant. Bored with his dead-end life, he decides to become a gun dealer after witnessing a gangland shootout. "You go into the restaurant business because 'people are always going to have to eat,' " he explains in the film's just about continuous voice-over. "That was the day I realized my destiny lay in fulfilling another basic human need."
The fascination in "Lord of War," as in most life stories, is in watching Orlov tenaciously make his way to the top of the arms dealer food chain, supplying "every army but the Salvation Army." Niccol, who appears to have done a prodigious amount of research, shows us the tricks of the weapon supplying trade and lets us in on horrific scenarios like the $32-billion worth of arms stolen from Ukraine between 1982 and 1992.
As a director, Niccol has chosen a pulpy, heightened "Scarface" style for "Lord of War," which works better visually than it does as a vehicle for any acting beyond striking poses. Ethan Hawke fits in as Yuri's humorless nemesis, Interpol agent Jack Valentine, but the more restrained Ian Holm seems abashed as rival arms dealer Simeon Weisz.
This dramatic insufficiency haunts "Lord of War's" unconvincing attempts to fill out Orlov's personal story by giving him a glamorous trophy wife he once worshipped from afar (Bridget Moynahan) and having brother Vitaly develop a weakness for cocaine and alcohol. Neither of these scenarios rises much above the pro forma.
The same can be said of Orlov's professional entanglement with Liberian president Andre Baptiste, strongly played by Eamonn Walker. Though this character, likely based on the real life Charles Taylor, is authentic enough, on film the power-mad-dictator scenario is too familiar to be effective.
The sense that there is truth behind the portrayal of Orlov as an arms dealer, however, keeps us interested in this film longer than we otherwise would be. It is, for instance, fascinating and horrifying to learn that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are the world's biggest arms suppliers. "Lord of War" succeeds in raising awareness, but dramatic success is beyond its abilities.
'Lord of War'
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality
Times guidelines: Violence to be expected, given the topic.
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Andrew Niccol. Producers Philippe Rousselet, Andrew Niccol, Nicolas Cage, Norman Golightly, Andy Grosch, Chris Roberts. Executive producers Fabrice Gianfermi, Bradley Cramp, Gary Hamilton, Christopher Eberts, Andreas Schmid, Michael Mendelsohn, James D. Stern. Screenplay Andrew Niccol. Cinematographer Amir Mokri. Editor Zach Staenberg. Costumes Elisabeth Beraldo. Music Antonio Pinto. Production design Jean Vincent Puzos. Art director Stephen Carter. Set decorator Donna Hamilton. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.