Monday, September 26, 2005

Movie: Lord of War (2005)

I shouldn’t be surprised that LORD OF WAR hasn’t set the box office on fire. Nobody ever got rich doing black comedy. I’m a little disappointed that the critical community isn’t behind it. You’d think a movie that was both wildly entertaining and deeply subversive would get a little love.

Andrew Niccol’s film is alive in every frame, viscerally and intellectually. It burns with righteous anger. And it’s eager to play with both form and content.

It’s structured along the well-worn lines of the modern criminal epic. Count down the elements along with me:

- The insinuating voiceover that promises to pull no punches

- The jukebox soundtrack

- The close friend/family member whose psychological problems threaten the organization’s stability (think Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS)

- The blankly perfect object of desire that will never fill the void, a la Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1983 version of SCARFACE

- The steady isolation of the main character, leading to a tragic comeuppance

And ... scene.

Niccol puts all these tropes in place only to turn each one on its head. He does this by having Nicolas Cage play an international arms dealer instead of a drug kingpin or mobster. Cage’s “crime” is in some cases legal and at other times tacitly approved by the world’s governments – but is always far more lethal than any caper the Corleones could cook up.

The knock on movies of this stripe is that they romanticize deviant behavior. It’s hard to buy the notion that crime doesn’t pay while watching charismatic hoodlums take whatever they want out of life. Niccol dynamites that conceit here. Cage isn’t some street-smart Machiavelli whacking his enemies on-screen while pushing horse to schoolkids off-camera. He’s just a salesman, a literal merchant of death – and yet thanks to Niccol’s kinetic storytelling, his life is exciting, compelling, even desirable.

For once, the voiceover doesn’t lie. Cage is never presented as heroic, or even anti-heroic. He’s a guy doing the one thing he’s good at, which happens to be sowing destruction wherever he goes, even in his own life. Forget THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; if you want to meet the devil onscreen, look no further.

Every year, there’s at least one movie I spark to that no one else seems to care about. Remember, I’m the guy who called David Mamet’s SPARTAN the top film of 2004, and paramedics had to help me out of the theater when VANILLA SKY ended. So take it with a grain of salt when I say that LORD OF WAR is one of the best American films of the year.