For any true businessman, there is no better business than war, as the trafficker protagonist of this extraordinary 2005 movie, Lord of War, knows perfectly well.
Like many other criminals, young Yuri Orlov (although he clarifies from the beginning that this is not his real name) grows up in the poor and violent neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
When he miraculously survives a restaurant shooting one day, he discovers how much more money he can make selling weapons and ammunition rather than serving meals like his father.
So he begins his first small business, becoming familiar with all kinds of weapons and government when he goes international with his brother Vitaly.
There is plenty of competition, and it is considerably more risky than in any other business, whether it is the crafty old rival smuggler Simeon Weisz or the incorruptible Jack Valentine, an Interpol agent vowed to frame him at any cost.
At the same time, with all his money and clever deception, Yuri approaches and wins the heart of Ava Fontane, a gorgeous model he has admired since he was a boy on magazine covers.
However, when he marries her, he does not change his life; in fact, he starts even more dangerous affairs to maintain the wealth worthy of his new wife.
So he flies to sell his weapons in dangerous Liberia, one of Africa’s most war-torn states, and under the command of the sadistic and self-elected President André Baptiste Sr.
Keeping this psychopath under control will not be easy, nor will his brother Vitaly become an irredeemable drug addict, as well as the beautiful Ava, increasingly exasperated by a husband who is never home.
At that point, Agent Valentine will just have to wait for one of them to make a mistake and frame everyone for good.
The big money of small wars
Leading this funny and exciting tragedy is Andrew Niccol, a solid, experienced director making cinema for nearly 30 years, and despite a short filmography, each of his movies is precious in its own way.
It is an adventure that is both a metaphor for unchecked capitalism pushed to the extreme and also (unfortunately) a realistic chronicle of what goes on behind the scenes of every war.
Niccol also handled the screenplay for Lord of War, with his unmistakable and always thought-provoking script, just as he did for Peter Weir’s majestic movie The Truman Show well before 2005.
However, we can also admire all his directing talent, for example, in the captivating intro with the creation of a bullet and its end inside the skull of a soldier/kid, following its journey from the assembly line to a remote African village to the notes of the splendid For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield.
Equally troubled is the journey of Nicolas Cage‘s character, as usual elegantly maddening in treating this market of death as ordinary work, explaining directly to us viewers his rise to success in the dark period of the old Soviet Union’s fall.
In this deadly game, the world becomes like a chessboard, and the arms dealers take sides with no player, selling weapons to every side for pure profit beyond any silly rhetoric or false ideology.
Zach Staenberg‘s excellent editing travels lightly without hesitation over Antonio Pinto‘s music, always harmonious and never intrusive, within Jean-Vincent Puzos‘ magnificent sets that are as terrible as they are believable from the dirty streets of New York to the most remote and abandoned road to a poor African village.
A journey that I assure you will remember, like its protagonists who all leave a mark.
All faces of the human soul
From the world’s giant map of conflicts, let’s look at the small lives of these characters, beginning with brothers Yuri and Vitaly Orlov.
As always, Nicolas Cage is a great protagonist, carrying the weight of the evil calmness of a soulless accountant, refusing to accept any responsibility for the death and pain his weapons cause.
“Even alcohol and cigarettes kill … at least guns have safeties” – so he tells his brother, with the face of Jared Leto, passionately playing an ambiguous man with morality but a victim of his worst weakness, soon becoming a drug addict for the family to endure.
Bridget Moynahan‘s wife/trophy character, on the other hand, might seem trite to you at first, but give her some time, and you will discover how, in the end, she is the only one who really succeeds in stirring (at least for a few moments) the conscience of her death-dealing husband.
Something Ethan Hawke‘s character, instead, fails to do, perhaps a bit surreal as the incorruptible Interpol agent, almost a classic action hero, always solidly carried aloft by the great actor who suffers an unforgettable lesson from Cage in the finale, just when he thinks he has defeated him.
Also excellent is the colorful supporting cast, among whom I mention the cunning old Ian Holm, a no-holds-barred rival with the protagonist’s weapons dealings, along with the (sadly) amusing mad dictator played by Eamonn Walker, proud commander of an army of children whom he sends to his death every day without hesitation.
Despite all the themes and metaphors of this movie, Andrew Niccol succeeds in keeping the spirit and narrative unfolding of Lord of War light and fast, grossing very well in theaters in 2005.