Buff 'Body of Lies' Runs On Intelligence
Friday, October 10, 2008
With its urgent post-9/11 context and torturous violence, it seems off-key to describe "Body of Lies" as a nifty political thriller, but that's what it is. A fast-moving swirl of mind games, political intrigue and explosive, bordering-on-sadistic brutality, the movie is smarter than the average action thriller, providing its visceral jolts with astute observations about contemporary geopolitics and cultural misunderstanding.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a crackerjack CIA operative stationed in the Middle East whose handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), backs him up from Langley by way of a secure phone and all-knowing satellite camera. Ferris and Hoffman are searching for a powerful al-Qaeda leader who has been masterminding bombings in Europe; the search will take Ferris from Iraq to Jordan to Dubai and finally to Syria in an escalating cat-and-mouse game of deception and mushy moral middle ground.
Adapted by screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed") and director Ridley Scott from the 2007 novel by Washington Post associate editor and columnist David Ignatius, "Body of Lies" clicks along at an engaging pace, legibly limning its multitude of characters and myriad locations with ease. (There are side trips to the Netherlands, Turkey and the leafy undisclosed location of a wily computer geek who helps Ferris in a "Mission: Impossible"-like piece of techno-legerdemain.)
Like Ferris, the filmmakers immerse themselves in the surroundings and culture of the Middle East and find it a lively, sophisticated and inviting place, if somewhat inscrutable. Rather than frightening Others, Arab characters in "Body of Lies" are portrayed with refreshing variety and sympathy, from Ferris's endless series of drivers to the pretty nurse he befriends in Amman, Jordan, played by the lovely Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani.
Viewers may be surprised to learn that a great deal of wry humor courses through "Body of Lies," and much of it is to be found in the constant back-and-forth between Hoffman and Ferris, whose company politics would be positively Dilbert-like if they weren't Company politics.
Crowe steals the movie as the doughy, graying Hoffman, an agency lifer who thinks nothing of consigning an ally to death while helping his young son use the toilet. Dressed in shlumpy golf shirts and delivering his come-to-Jesus speeches with a convincing Southern twang, he's almost unrecognizable as an otherwise featureless bureaucrat umbilically connected to his Bluetooth, who happens to get his sedentary kicks from watching Ferris risk his life in the hottest place on Earth. (It's almost worth the price of admission to "Body of Lies" just to watch Crowe peer over Hoffman's nerdy glasses and say the word "couscous.")
Crowe's performance, by turns funny and sinister, makes DiCaprio seem that much more out of his league as Ferris; in a movie that calls for a strong central link, he's by far the weakest. With an Eddie Munster haircut and weirdly emphatic line readings, he's stiff and uncomfortable compared with Crowe and the British actor Mark Strong, who as the silky chief of Jordanian intelligence forms the seductive hypotenuse of a triangle based on mutual mistrust and ambiguous motivations.
Still, even DiCaprio's lack of gravitas doesn't keep "Body of Lies" from delivering effective, engaging and often eye-popping entertainment. Indeed, one of the best moments in the movie doesn't even feature an actor, or at least a visible one. At one point a team of SUVs circles Ferris in the middle of the desert, kicking up a growing cloud of sand until he's snatched into one of them. While Hoffman watches helplessly via the satellite, each vehicle suddenly drives off in a different direction, so that Hoffman doesn't know where his man is or which car to track. It's a brilliant and sobering moment, and a terrific visual expression of the slyly provocative idea that drives "Body of Lies": All the American technological prowess in the world can be brought low by nothing more than a handful of dust.
Body of Lies (128 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence including some torture, and for profanity throughout.