Imagine the story of a ruthlessly amoral gun runner as it would be told in "GoodFellas" and "Three Kings" and you get pretty close to "Lord of War," Andrew Niccol's stylish, provocative thriller starring Nicolas Cage.
But it's not really a thriller; indeed, throughout this fast-moving, darkly comic drama, viewers are pretty certain what's going to happen next. We're pretty sure, for example, that Cage's character, Yuri Orlov, doesn't die in the end, because he narrates his story as one long flashback to the present moment, in which he's standing in an impossibly huge expanse of spent bullet shells. That shot is so stylized, so visually bold, that at first Orlov seems to be speaking from some kind of mercenary heaven, where the ordnance is never-ending, and free. But as "Lord of War" gets underway, it's clear that the outsized visual style has less to do with the afterlife than with Niccol's own dazzling eye, and Yuri's self-mythologizing memory.
It all started, he explains in the film's omnipresent voice-over, in Brighton Beach, N.Y. -- or, more precisely, in Ukraine, whose emigre community settled in that neighborhood decades ago. That's where Yuri and his little brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, rockin' a convincing Jackson Browne haircut) grew up with their mother and father, the latter of whom pretended to be a Jew to get out of the Soviet Union and who took that identity to heart ("I like the hat," he explains). With swift, darkly knowing humor, Yuri recounts how he sold his first black-market gun to a Russian gang member, then slowly built his business into the mega-million arms operation it became when the Cold War ended. "The arms bazaar was open," as he says, and he began purveying tanks, grenades, RPGs and M16s to any country, warlord, drug dealer or tinhorn dictator who wanted them. "I didn't sell to bin Laden," Yuri says at one point, "not on any moral grounds, but because he was always bouncing checks."
Such is the cynical wit that drives "Lord of War," which Niccol wrote and directed, and which exhibits his signature dual devotion to sleek, highly legible images and almost compulsively cerebral dialogue. (Niccol wrote "The Truman Show" and "Gattaca," which he also directed.) As Yuri proceeds with his apologia, all the while taking the audience on his personal tour of the most desperate places on Earth (most of them in Africa), he keeps up a rapid-fire monologue, bouncing from pronouncements about the cardinal rules of gunrunning (never get shot with your own merchandise) to delivering a rhapsodic panegyric on the glories of the 1947 Kalashnikov, better known as the AK-47. Meanwhile, on-screen, "Lord of War" tells Yuri's story with the same bravado and stylishness as Scorsese at his finest, with bigger-than-life characters and situations splashing across the screen in breathtaking scale. (A shot of one of Yuri's private transport planes landing on a crowded road in Africa is particularly beautiful, in its ruthless way.)
Just as we're pretty sure that Yuri will survive even the most murderous circumstances of his own creation, we're pretty sure that his Faustian bargains will catch up with him, and they do. Although Yuri quits for a while (at the behest of his swoonily passive wife, played by Bridget Moynahan), like Michael Corleone sooner or later he's pulled back in, specifically by the homicidally corrupt leader of Liberia and his equally psychotic son. But even as Yuri confronts the evil of his work, he can't help engaging in the familiar moral ratiocination (cars and cigarettes kill more people than guns, if I didn't do it, someone else would, etc., etc.) and reaching the final, inescapable conclusion that he helps people kill other people for one simple reason: He's good at it.
Cage is well cast as Yuri, and he has the right scale and size to portray a man who isn't meant to resemble anyone real as much as a character from a Warren Zevon song (Niccol reportedly based "Lord of War" on real-life gun runners, some of whom lent the production their weapons). And if Ethan Hawke isn't entirely believable as the Interpol agent who stalks him like Inspector Javert, they at least have one or two sardonically amusing scenes together. The best is their last, in which a sadly believable twist -- involving a double-dealing colonel clearly based on Oliver North during his Iran-contra days -- plays havoc with the agent's sense of righteousness. (Ian Holm strikes a classy note as one of Yuri's competitors, a man of the old school who scorns the Ukrainian upstart's willingness to do business with anyone who'll pay.)
In many ways, "Lord of War" is a bookend to "The Constant Gardener," another movie in which Africa is being exploited by greedy, morally bankrupt First World forces. But whereas Niccol clearly means to leave the audience in a state of outrage -- and, one would expect, nascent activism -- by showing them how complicit Western governments are in creating and sustaining men like Yuri, "Lord of War" ends on a rather dispiriting note of defeat. It's as difficult for Niccol to indict the gun culture while fetishizing it as it is for him to make a heartfelt movie with a heartless protagonist. To fill in those blanks, the filmmaker relies too heavily on a didactic, epigrammatic script; Yuri doesn't talk or relate to other characters, but simply delivers a series of rules and apercus that could have resulted from a collaboration between Hunter Thompson and Oscar Wilde. "Lord of War" has a hip, gonzo energy to it and it's often transfixing to watch and listen to. But it's finally just as empty as the man it's about.
Lord of War (122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence, drug use, profanity and sexuality.