Movie review: Lord of War by Andrew Niccol

Directed and written by Andrew Niccol
Cast:
Yuri Orlov: Nicolas Cage
Vitaly Orlov: Jared Leto
Simeon Weisz (Yuri’s main rival): Ian Holm 
Ava Fontaine (wife of Yuri): Bridget Moynahan
Jack Valentine (Interpol agent): Ethan Hawke
Date of release: 2005

Synopsis:

Meet Yuri Orlov- an ambitious son of  Ukrainian immigrants living in the USA. He wants to escape the banal life of New York’s Little Odessa and his father’s pseudo-Jewish, little restaurant, serving borscht and latkes. He thinks his future will change for the better if he enters the right business. Still all the legal  career opportunities disapoint him heavily – they don’t give him a chance to become successful and rich fast. Then, after witnessing a brutal gang warfare murder, he finds his vocation – selling arms. After all human beings will always have a need for people who sell guns, like they need doctors and morticians, right? Every twelfth person on Earth owns  a gun of a kindYuri’s ambition is to arm the other eleven as well. How very egalitarian of him ;p.

 His new profession of an illegal arms dealer takes him to the hyper-violent war zones of West Africa, the real “edge of Hell”. His best customer is one of sociopathic dictators who employ children soldiers and torture people on a whim. While Yuri is not doging bullets and Interpol agents he is laundering his money, investing in legal businesses, buying himself a multimilion dollar Manhattan condo and a fashion model wife he’s always had a crush on. He feels he deserves it for all the danger and trouble. Yes, his hands are stained but who can boast of a clean pair of these in any business?

Anyway Yuri’s transition between the two worlds is seamless, as is the ethical compartmentalization that allows him to exist comfortably in both: “Cars and cigarettes kill more people than guns,” “I simply give people the means to defend themselves,” “The gun itself won’t kill anybody” – these are elements of his everyday mantra. However slowly the corrosive depravity of Yuri’s vocation eats away at this bifurcated morality and he and his more sensitive brother succumb to the vices that his weapon sales indirectly cultivate – prostitution, drug addiction, corruption and murder. Still he becomes influential and rich – richer than he’d ever dreamt. Will he leave his chosen profession now for something more palatable? Will he keep endangering his more and more anxious wife, little son and drug-addicted younger brother?

My impressions:

This movie surprised me in a very positive way mainly because of Nicolas Cage and his great portrayal of the main lead. I admit it was truly inspired. Yuri shares with us his whole story, from his first experience with a gun sale through his monumental peak of the career, to his inevitable downfall. As he tells us at the beginning, he doesn’t try and sugar coat the story; he knows he’s not the best representative of the human race but still he doesn’t feel guilty. He tried to break into the legal market of arms dealing but other, more important competitors, Simeon Weish among them, made it impossible. They forced Yuri to resort to black and, let’s state it clearly, Yuri’s favorite, “gray” markets. Not his fault, right?

At one level, arms trade is an activity that lends itself perfectly to the big screen – big guns, lots of money, exotic places, shady characters, beautiful, expensive call girls in rare moments of rest and relaxation. But that’s only half the story. Less sexy but more important are the dizzyingly complex administrative and bureaucratic arrangements made by traffickers to hide their activities and throw any law enforcement officials who can’t be bribed or eliminated off the scent. Fraudulent end-user certificates, front companies, false bills of lading – all essential elements of the illicit arms trade but hardly the stuff of an enjoyable Friday night at the movies. Niccol manages to communicate these details while keeping his audience on the edge of their seats with the guns, money and shady characters. Let me describe one scene as an example.

Yuri and his brother Vitaly are approaching the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena with a boatload of AK-47 assault rifles. Yuri is conversing with his nacro-trafficker client about the “Angel Kings” he is going to deliver. Moments later, he receives a phone call from one of his plants in a Colombian intelligence agency who informs him that Interpol is hot on his trail. Yuri goes to work. He sends one of his crew members over the side of the ship with a can of paint and hasty orders to paint over the large, white “Kristol” inscription (the name of the ship). He then calls another paid spy who gives him the name of a clean Dutch ship, the “Kono,” which he barks at the crew member on the hanging scaffold. Vitaly frantically searches their extensive collection of national flags for a Dutch flag, which, unfortunately, has gone missing. The camera pans to a rapidly approaching Interpol patrol boat. In the nick of time, Vitaly finds a French flag which, turned on its side, looks like the Dutch flag, and the anonymous crew member finishes repainting the side of the ship literally in the last possible moment. The Interpol patrol boat pulls up along side the newly renamed “Kono.” Even though the name doesn’t match the ship they are looking for, agent Jack Valentine decides to board the ship anyway and search it. He is greeted by Yuri, who shows him to the cargo hold while a cool voice-over by Cage explains how he conceals his merchandise: in boxes labeled “farm equipment,” in canisters marked “radio active waste,” and, his personal favorite, “the combination of week-old potatoes and tropical heat,” which is what surprised Valentine finds in the cargo hold.

Through numerous scenes like that one, Niccol managed to construct a surprisingly nuanced and accurate portrayal of the illicit arms trade and people behind it, never veering towards a lachrymose story about human vices or a vacuous slapstick about a very serious issue. He never tries to moralize the viewer or force some simplistic solutions on you – an approach which is a huge asset and which I adore. Perhaps the first part of the movie is indeed a bit slower but then you are rewarded till the very end.

Final verdict:

 “Lord of War” is an edgy, intelligent, innovative and darkly humorous film which can appeal to lay audiences and policy analysts alike. I am not surprised it was officially endorsed by the human rights group Amnesty International for highlighting the arms trafficking by the international arms industry and individuals alike.

Quotes I found interesting (for those undecided, doubting souls ;p):

“Without operations like mine it would be impossible for certain countries to conduct a respectable war. I was able to navigate around those inconvenient little arms embargoes. There are three basic types of arms deal: white, being legal, black, being illegal, and my personal favorite color, *gray*. Sometimes I made the deal so convoluted, it was hard for *me* to work out if they were on the level.”

“I sell to leftists, and rightists. I sell to pacifists, but they’re not the most regular customers. Of course, you’re not a *true* internationalist until you’ve supplied weapons to kill your *own* countrymen. “
“Every faction in Africa calls themselves by these noble names – Liberation this, Patriotic that, Democratic Republic of something-or-other… I guess they can’t own up to what they usually are: the Federation of Worse Oppressors Than the Last Bunch of Oppressors. Often, the most barbaric atrocities occur when both combatants proclaim themselves Freedom Fighters. “

“After the Cold War, the AK-47 became Russia’s biggest export. After that came vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists.”

“Some of the most successful relationships are based on lies and deceit. Since that’s where they usually end up anyway, it’s a logical place to start. “

“You know who’s going to inherit the Earth? Arms dealers. Because everyone else is too busy killing each other. That’s the secret to survival. Never go to war. Especially with yourself. “

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