Lord of War (DVD, 2006, 2-Disc Set, Special Edition) Reviews
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Lord of War (DVD, 2006, 2-Disc Set, Special Edition)

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LORD OF WAR: "The First Rule of Gunrunning: Never Get Shot With Your Own Merchandise!"

Aug 29, 2005 (Updated Jan 23, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Interesting, unsentimental, serious but entertaining film on a serious subject. Great action sequences and editing.

Cons:May seem propagandistic, but it's hard arguing against films condemning murder, rape and maiming.

The Bottom Line: LORD OF WAR, sponsored in part by Amnesty International, makes the case that, through surrogates and "contractors," all industrialized countries share responsibility for chaos caused by the World's arms trade.

"Got guns?" Anti-hero Yuri Orlov quips in a tense moment.

"LORD OF WAR, a film with a number of flaws, would be easy to overestimate, but a mistake to dismiss. It concerns the nearly invisible core of a mechanism which, with every passing year, leads us all toward incineration or environmental degradation.

It is a film which gores many Sacred Cows.

Writer/Director Andrew Niccol points out, in his expansive far-flung action/adventure film, that there is no one "Lord of War" in the World, nor is there just one "War." However, for the war his vastly cynical picture presents, Nicholas Cage is that "Lord."

Those facts are the picture's great strength and most obvious weakness.


In America, the last 100 years or so, we've talked a lot about "war." In fact, for long periods of time, it sometimes seems we have talked about little else: The Spanish American War, World War I, World War II. After declaring our ideals (which provided inspiration for numerous fledgling nations), then fighting for our freedom and unity in the Civil War, entering World scene on the side of Democracy in World War II, in the 21st Century America simply joined the passing parade of Empire.

We adopted the goals of British and French empires which we had decried for 150 years, and the methods of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which we expressed outrage prior to, during and after the Second World War.

[Before (and in between) the wars of the 20th Century, shadowy figures of power -- such as Sir Basil Zaharoff ("The Merchant of Death"), Gulbar Gulbenkian ("Mr. 5-Percenter"), Somosthenes Behn (Founder of IT&T, manufacturer of the Nazi Fouke-Wulf interceptor plus components for America's Liberator bomber; however, to please influential forces in America and Britain, capable of nudging his friend, General George S. Patton, to push on to Moscow, in the Spring of 1945), and Prescott Bush (Grandfather of Our President, titular CEO of the Union Munitions Factory at Auchswitz, 1940-1943). These men supplied the arms and fuel for all sides in Mankind's wars.

To them, it was only business, and the conflicts were first described, after the Rape of Nanking, and the bombing of the Open City of Rotterdam, as Total War.

[LORD OF WAR is, most of all, about the consequences of Total War, as a viable concept.]

[Several of the above dealers in military materiel are models for Eric Ambler's THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (originaly, A Coffin for Dimitrios), and Orson Welles' MR. ARKADIN. In LORD OF WAR, "Simeon Weiz" represents these men. "Yuri Orlov," the title character, is a composite of "the modern new generation" of International arms traders.]


After WWII, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations prosecuted the first of our "non-wars," known as "The Cold War," which produced our . . . initial . . . "formal non-war": The Korean Police Action ("my war").

[In this conflict, the first in which we acted grandly on behalf of a UN resolution, we secured our Far Eastern geopolitical military anchor, in Japan and Korea.]

There followed the Vietnam War (undeclared, formally), which like the War on Iraq, no American official could every honestly explain (but if we had "won," we might have had another piece in our ring of Forward Positions encircling China and Russia}. It was the last military "war" we really noticed. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Salvador, Chile, Angola, were proxy wars, which only crazy Leftists paid attention to. Grenada and Panama were mere knightly adventures supposedly to protect the innocent or apprehend criminals, but Afghanistan, to which at the time we denied having any formal connection, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it also set up 9/11.

[This history is the prologue and background to LORD OF WAR.]


Meanwhile, using "war" as a metaphor, there was "The War on Poverty," President Lyndon Johnson's ambitious program to help 40 million American underdogs. An extension of FDR's New Deal, the war was never won, but no one ever reduced it to an abbreviation or an acronym. Since the 1960's, we have stepped over its casualties on the streets of our great cities, ignored it on TV, and more recently, railed against it crabbedly on Radio talk shows, as the Nation moved inexorably to the Right of the Political Spectrum.

Later, President Richard Nixon launched "The War on Drugs." That war has driven us back, so that American government -- Federal, state and local -- now spends $80,000 dollars a minute (over $33,000,000,000, up to this moment, for the year 2005) in a conflict of cross purposes -- Stateside, in Latin America and elsewhere. Save for Russia, the United States has more persons in jail than any other nation on earth; over 500,000 of them are imprisoned for drug offenses, more than the total prison population of all Europe. Alas, our drug problem continues to grow. Of course, a not quite open secret is that many "black ops" prosecuted by our covert forces are financed with drug money.

[The failure of these largely PR operations, often crippled by their misleading covert aims, is implicit in the action of LORD OF WAR. Poverty, the immense number of arms manufactured, and the currency of dope provide that action's motivation.]

Recently, we have had "the war on terror" (lately, renamed some variation of "the war on extremism"). This war prompted us, for entree into the oil-rich adjacent "republics," to fortify Afghanistan (home now, again, of the greatest Opium Poppy crop in the World); to complete 17 large permanent military installations (to accommodate 500,000 personnel) in Iraq ("where the Oil is"), also site of what will be our largest embassy in the World; and to begin a move, announced the other day, of our Cold War bases in Germany further east, to new forward positions in Poland and other former Eastern Bloc countries. (The former Soviet Bloc is central, after the Cold War, to the largest group of non-American arsenals for military equipment.) These extensions of "the war on terror" have not been going very well either, but an examination of the map will show that, along with our Asian military bases, they may have other, old fashioned "balance of power" advantages.

In LORD OF WAR, Writer/Director Andrew Niccol (THE TRUMAN SHOW: w-1998; GATTACA: d-1997) implies two additional wars: one we have never declared -- except in the public nightmares of officials from the National Rifle Association -- "The War against Guns" (W.A.G?); and the other one that we never seem to have admitted to: The War on Women (W.O.W?!).

And thus, it goes without saying: The War against Children.


LORD OF WAR opens energetically to Buffalo Springfield's classic, "For What It's Worth -- "There's a man over there with a gun . . . ." The camera moves over an abstract pattern, which resolves into thousands and thousands of rifle cartridges. They move down a conveyor belt, and one of them becomes "us"; tumbled into a box, a cover nailed over us, trucked to a plane, inspected, off-loaded on a dusty airstrip, dumped in a heap and pawed about by a group of "freedom fighters." We are selected and crammed into the magazine of a Kalashnikov AK-47, and following some foreplay, fired from the barrel of that gun into the head of a man. As the blood burst dissolves, the camera dollies across a scene of Third World devastation, toward the back of a man in a dark suit, who stands observing burning buildings and cars.

Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage) turns to face the camera. He informs us that there are over 500 million AK-47's in the World, one for every 12 humans.

"It's my job to sell one to the other 11."

The glib combination of dark humor and statistics sets the tone for the rest of LORD OF WAR.


Yuri tells us that his parents pretended to be Jews (the first of many subterfuges which characters carry on in the picture) in order to emigrate from the Ukraine to the United States during the Cold War. They settled in the "Little Odessa" section of Brooklyn. Still maintaining their new false identities, the family opened a restaurant, but the pressures of their deception soon destroyed their cohesiveness.

Anatoly the Father (Jean Pierre Nshanian) immerses himself like a method actor in his role, taking little part in the business, growing a beard, dressing like a Hassidic scholar, studying the Torah and attending Temple. Irina the Mama (Shake Toukhmanian) objurgates about why she cannot enjoy her American freedom -- by becoming a practicing Catholic. Younger Son Vitaly (Jared Lehto), though singularly untalented, attempts to make the family scenario work by becoming their restaurant's main cook (easing universal criticism of his kitchen preparations with swigs of Vodka).

Most disgruntled with all the bickering is Eldest Son Yuri (Cage). After witnessing a failed Russian Mafia hit, narrowly escaping death himself, Yuri recognizes a ticket out of the dining room -- his real calling in America: Illegal Arms Salesman. He negotiates his first gig through a friend of his father's at the Temple, and he realizes that the mix of danger, competition, success and large sums of money, gives him an exhilaration that he has never experienced. Yuri then rescues his brother from the kitchen to become his bodyguard.

They are soon off selling Uzis, Kalashnikovs, and Glocks in the first of 13 countries and 40 wars they will enable.


As in the GODFATHER TRILOGY, on which the plot of LORD OF WAR appears loosely based, Yuri attempts to lead his family out of their deceptions and lies. Like Michael Corleone, he strives for respectability while practicing secretive, hypocritical and criminal means. It is a very American story, and in a similar way to Michael in THE GODFATHER III, Yuri senses the associations he's made "keep dragging [him] back."


In the early 1980's, following another close touch with death, in which Yuri and Vitaly accept that Cocaine must often serve as money, and see teenagers shot by a firing squad, they turn up in Germany at a huge Arms Fair. Girls out of "The Three Penny Opera, dressed in smart go-go military costumes and carrying mock automatic weapons, stride upon a huge tank (for sale). Yuri approaches Simeon Weiz (Ian Holm), the Big Man of the Arms Trade for many years and many wars -- now, we gather presentlly, primarily representing the CIA. Weiz rejects a business card, saying that Yuri does not belong in the game with "The Big Boys."

Yuri asks him: "Didn't you supply both Iran [the Ayatollah Khomeini] and Iraq [Saddam Hussein] in their civil war?"

Yes, replies Weiz, "but I wanted them both to lose."

[That appears to be the most coherent real explanation by United States insiders for why we supplied Saddam what became known as "Weapons of Mass Destruction," and dealt with Iran's Ayatollahs through "Irangate"; that little understood, carefully covered up operation -- the investigation of which resulted mainly in leading negotiator for President Reagan with these terrorists (denied), Colonel Oliver North, becoming one of the first a new breed of Right Wing talk show hosts (right there beside "Watergate" ex-con G. Gordon Liddy .]

Yuri and Vitaly's profits in Cocaine provide compensation for hurt feelings in the form of the German go-go models. Unfortunately, it is the beginning of a drug addiction which will dog Vitaly throughout much of the film, forcing Yuri to commit Vitaly repeatedly to rehab for the sake of the Family, and to maintain small amounts of Cocaine to manage his brother.

That has consequences.


Another motivation for Yuri's drive to success is The Girl, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). He admired her from afar during her days in Brooklyn as a Parade Princess, through her rise to becoming a top International model.

At every step of Yuri's progress -- in magazines wearing sleek fashions; beside some shell-pocked road, advertising KOOL Cigarettes from a billboard; flaunting Bvlgari on a Paris boulevard -- there is the well-named, slim, dark-haired Ava Fontaine. When Yuri has scored enough, he leases a luxury resort hotel on the shores of glorious St. Barts in the Caribbean, and lures Ava there on a phony fashion photo shoot. Paid in advance, unable to catch a plane for several days, Ava chances to meet Yuri, the only other patron at the hotel. He has to lie to her about what he does, of course, but a certain natural charm and their common hometown in Brooklyn brings them together.

Yuri and Ava marry, meet his parents, have a son, and live in a suite on Park Avenue. Ava, like many of her fellow citizens, does not ask (indeed does not want to know) the source of her affluent life style and surroundings. Accepting the long absences her husband's work requires, she occupies herself rearing the child, and indulging her ambitions as a painter, especially when a mysterious admirer of her works is ready to buy them anonymously.

Life is good.


But Yuri needs a new business partner, and almost by a miracle to his way of thinking, when the Soviet Union collapses and the Berlin Wall comes down, he finds such a partner in his Uncle Dimitri, a powerful general of the destitute Red Army. Stationed in the Ukraine, strongly loyal to the Family, General Dimitri nurses a formidable alcoholism problem. To "The Song of the Volga Boatman," he is persuaded to sell off huge quantities of Russian equipment through Nephew Yuri.

This has consequences, too.

[Yuri tells us that hundreds of thousands of armaments, from shells to fighter planes, flooded out of the Former Soviet Union into Africa, Asia and South America, making possible a succession of "civil wars," which continue to this day. Note: he absolves himself of any responsibility for Osama bin Laden, saying that Osama was unwilling or unable to shell out enough for Yuri's services, at a time when there might have been a deal.]

One of his business trips takes Yuri off the coast of South America in an old Norwegian freighter full of Russian weapons, shells and grenades (buried in rotting potatoes), where he first meets his nemesis, Interpol Investigator Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke).

Yuri bests Jack on that occasion, but they will meet again as part of other consequences.


To develop new markets, Yuri must go further and further afield -- into Africa: Sierra Leone, to the Congo -- and in Liberia, he comes under the power of the sociopathic President Andre Babtiste (a bravura performance by Eamonn Walker) and his crazy son, Andre, Jr. (Sammi Rotibi). It is Andre, Sr., who insists on using involuted expressions like "bath of blood," etc, one of which gives LORD OF WAR its title. In order, to make deals with these madmen, Yuri avoids the temptations of Baptiste's women (fearing AIDs), but at last, he has to cross a line. For the first time in his life, Yuri is forced to share a pistol to kill an important rival.

Yuri and those close to him never escape the consequences of that act.

Right down to 9/11.


I have said that LORD OF WAR gores many Sacred Cows. Though Interpol's Jack Valentine comes close -- as "a straight arrow" -- no individual, no nation, no cause, emerges from the picture without responsibility for the political, economic, moral, medical and sheer human chaos and tragedy it depicts. Seldom in America, for instance, do we ever hear Israel mentioned as a cause for some of the World's problems; and an obscure officer, Lt. Colonel Oliver Southern (retd), played by an always obscured actor, whose name and homage I'll let you discover (to your ironic amusement), pops up periodically to represent the United States in all these machinations.

The human cost of the machinations is shown in the little girl without an arm or the old man without a leg -- and in an African camp set up for massacre (with Yuri's weapons), the woman who is chased down like an antelope, hacked and raped and mutilated.


In criticism of LORD OF WAR, I have a nagging problem with Nick Cage in the title role. Cage turned in extraordinary performances as a youth (RED ROCK WEST, RAISING ARIZONA, MOONSTRUCK, etc), but when he became A STAR, his acting slacked off. He does not entirely avoid this judgment playing Yuri Orlov, but as the picture went on, that laid back quality began to work for him. Yuri is a trickster, a farfelou, who growing older, knows what a sham of a life he leads. Narrator Cage will suddenly get off one liners at Yuri's expense which seem just right, before lapsing into the worried expression of a man who knows he will eventually go too far, and may already have.

It is also to his credit, according to Director Niccol at the screening, that Cage insisted on pulling no punches in the script. He also donated a portion of his salary, off the top, to Amnesty International's Women Protection and Congo projects, but his very seriousness and generosity are a problem, too. I personally like voice over narration, but Yuri may convey too many technical facts and figures about weapons, child soldiers, maimed civilians and raped women. Some will find it propagandistic.

Then again, how often does a big Hollywood-style action film rub the noses of First World citizens into the horrors their indifference, greed and arrogance causes? Unlike THE DEAL, recently but briefly in theaters, which rapidly becomes incredible and slightly preposterous in its tale of yuppie high finance, LORD OF WAR digs us down in the grit and squalor which is the price of our comfort.

The crawl informs us that the five greatest Arms Traffickers in the World are: The United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China, in that order. They also happen to occupy the five powerful seats of the UN Security Council!


LORD OF WAR was photographed by Amir M. Mokari (COYOTE UGLY, which he shared with the most effective Ms. Moynahan); edited by Zack Steinberg (THE MATRIX, 1999) to the production design of Jean-Pierre Puzoz (THE CAT'S MEOW, 2001) -- with a rare appropriately matched score of broad generational and ethnic songs by Antonio Pinto. Ms. Moynahan and Jared Lehto stand out in the generally interesting cast. (And as always, Ian Holm is the Old Pro.) Shot on location in South Africa (representing in its varied landscapes up to 13 countries), the Czech Republic (for the Ukraine) and New York City (itself), LORD OF WAR is a fast moving, exciting, interesting, satirical adventure movie, which carries "a message" concerning the arms trade, but it should be seen widely, nevertheless, for all its qualities.

After all, we are eventually going to pay the bill, in every way possible.


Due for release (wide), September 16, 2005.


For the best documentary on World events caused by the kind of actions described in LORD OF WAR, I recommend the BBC documentary: THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES: THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR. Here is the URL of my review:



And here are reviews of some movies referred to above:













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