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LORD OF WAR

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ian Holm, Ethan Hawke
Director: Andrew Niccol
Audio: Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS ES 6.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: January 17, 2006

“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is…How do we arm the other eleven?"

Film ****

In a year that presented many taut, politically-based thrillers, writer/director Andrew Niccol served up one of the truly best with Lord of War. It presents a character formula similar to that of Scarface and Blow, depicting a rise-to-the-top of the American dream through illegal means. But the means explored in this film is gunrunning, and the rise and fall process doesn’t go as you’d might expect.

Niccol’s screenplay is extraordinary in the way it mixes in elements of both dark humor and sheer brutal realism. Not since Three Kings has a single film toyed with so many different angles and wound up as a pure masterpiece. Lord of War also carries an added bonus of superb social commentary.

The movie opens with a truly incredible shot of a man standing in the middle of a field of empty bullet shells, with gunfire raging in the background. The man is Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage, who provides some of the most effective voice over narration heard this side of a Martin Scorsese film). Through the narration, Yuri details his twenty plus years in the gunrunning business. Has he given it up, or did it cost him something? By the end of the film, you might be a bit surprised at how everything turns out.

Following this is one of the most amazing opening credit sequences you will ever see. It’s one that follows the path of a bullet, from manufacturing to shipment all the way to the chamber of an assault rifle and then, finally, right to head of its victim. It’s an engaging and disturbing image that brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the film.

“The first, and most important rule of gunrunning, is never get shot with your own merchandise.”

Yuri’s story begins in New York in the early 80s. His family emigrated from Russia to the states. They did this by claiming to be Jewish, which made easier for them to flee their home. Yuri, along with his younger brother, Vitali (Jared Leto), is employed at the family restaurant, which seems to be in both of their futures.

But then one day, Yuri witnesses a mafia hit, and he gets an unexpected epiphany. With one look at a bullet shell, he sees an opportunity for bigger pay in an entirely new kind of business. Before long, Yuri has made his first gun sale with an Uzi. He then convinces his brother to go into his newly found business with him, despite the younger brother’s reservations.

Nonetheless, Yuri starts making sale after sale after sale. Even as some of his customers, such as a sadistic army in Beirut, who target-practice the guns on young children, Yuri never once allows morals to get in the way of business. The way he sees it, he is simply a supplier looking to make a profit. After all, as he points out, more people are killed by alcohol and tobacco, and his product has a safety switch.

As time progresses, Yuri has become a very wealthy man. He even has the means to woo the woman of his dreams, model/actress Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), and acquire a luxurious mansion in Manhattan. He tells her, as well as his parents, that he makes all his money in transporting.

“Peace talks? Fine, then I’ll reroute the shipment to the Balkans. When they say they’re gonna have a war, they keep their word.”

But Yuri soon manages to gain two setbacks; Vitali’s drug addiction, and being constantly pursued by Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke, in a small but thoroughly effective supporting part), who will arrest him in a by-the-book method, which in this case is very difficult.

The second half of the movie deals with Yuri’s most intimidating buyer; bloodthirsty and American-educated African dictator Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker). He takes a liking to Yuri, and soon labels him as the “lord of war”. Baptiste also has a hot-headed son, who carries a gold AK-47 but is dying to have, as he puts it, the gun of Rambo. The dictator pays him not only in cash but diamonds, prostitutes and a special form of cocaine, which leads to one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed sequences involving a drug-induced state of mind.

The movie achieves pure brilliance by the end, as the true politics of arms dealing is revealed in a scene where Yuri’s fate is decided. It’s a moment that seriously had me thinking that such a scenario could happen and the end result could be nothing but possible. What’s more, the message the movie ends on is a very strong one.

Nicolas Cage has always delivered his best when playing characters who are complex and not always easy to sympathize with, and yet are willing to invest some level of emotion, and Yuri Orlov is probably the best example of such a character. He portrays Yuri as a man driven to make money by whatever means, even if it means supplying guns to the poorest people on the planet and giving them the means to continue destroying each other, and somehow remains unaffected by all the harm he’s causing.

“You call me evil. But unfortunately for you, I’m a necessary evil.”

Lord of War is a masterful film, full of wit, energy and a strong level of insight into an illegal profession. It is indeed the absolute best piece to come from Andrew Niccol, director of Gattaca and screenwriter of The Truman Show, and is another fantastic showcase for Mr. Cage. Lock, load and enjoy!

Video **1/2

Having seen the film twice in the theaters, I can certainly say I was more than let down by the fact that Lions Gate chose to re-format the film from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to a 1.78:1. Rarely does this improve the quality of the picture (the only good example I know of is Once Upon a Time in Mexico), but this time around, several images are a bit cropped and I just didn’t get the impact I got from seeing it in its original format. Whether this was a request from the director is uncertain, but I would like to take the time to request that the studio release a version with the correct ratio if possible. You’ll be doing us fans a HUGE favor.

Having said that, the anamorphic picture quality is quite clear, with both light and dark shots turning up fantastically well. Colors are stunning, as well. There is barely a big image flaw in the entire presentation, other than what I just mentioned which I hope can be fixed.

Audio ****

Well 2006 has already got its first candidate for best audio performance. Lions Gate has fully delivered in this department, supplying an explosive 5.1 EX mix and an even more explosive DTS ES 6.1 track. The film is an outstanding technical achievement, and there are barely any special effects in the entire movie. There’s plenty of gunfire, music, set pieces and audio tricks to complete a most monumental sounding disc. Dialogue delivery is as strikingly clear as can be, especially Cage’s effective narration.

Features ***1/2

This 2-Disc edition includes a locked and loaded array of extras, starting with a fully informative commentary track with Andrew Niccol on Disc One.

Disc Two features a behind the scenes documentary, as well as an additional documentary titled “Brothers in Arms”, which takes a look at the real life effects of the gunrunning business. Also included are Deleted Scenes, Weapons of Trade, which details each of the guns used in the film, and a bonus trailer gallery.

Summary:

Lord of War is no less than a breath of fresh air in today’s play-it-safe market. It’s an energetic character piece loaded with sharp detail by Andrew Niccol and powered by Nicolas Cage in what is one of his great performances to date. A definitive must-see!

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