The trailers looked so promising. The somber, hang-dog face of Nicolas Cage informing the audience that 1 out every 12 people owns a gun, then intoning with dismay, “The question is…how do we arm the other 11?” Howls of laughter from the audience and many whispers of “That looks good.” And as clips of Cage as an international gun runner stumbling under the weight of success rolled on, it did look good. An underground industry that enables penniless immigrants to get rich arming the very regimes they fled from--what could be more ripe for a Swiftian send-up than that?
But all my hopes for a good dark comedy on self-aggrandizing Third-World dictators and the arms dealers who love them were dashed the moment strains of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” started to play over the opening credits. There’s nothing worse than having preachy anti-war lyrics (“I think it's time we stop, children. What's that sound? Everybody look what's goin’ down”) distract you from an otherwise entertaining and educational preamble on how bullets are made. Strike that--there is something worse: realizing that the writer/director thinks his moralizing, manufactured ironies (like having a weapons merchant bar his son from playing with toy guns) are actually passing for wit. It’s enough to make you wish you could take the poor, deluded man by the hand and explain to him that no self-respecting satire ends with a public service statement about how many people are killed by firearms each day.
Yet the razor sharp teeth promised in the trailer still occasionally glitter behind the bars of a politically-correct cage. In this, the story of Yuri Orlav, an immigrant from the Ukraine who rises up from Brooklyn’s lower-middle class to rub elbows with despots and marry a supermodel, mirrors the man who plays him. Nicolas Cage may be the most hit or miss actor of his generation, and his performance here features both the hit Cage and the miss Cage. While narrating and delivering the film’s few bonafide zingers, he crackles with energy, and it’s clear he too recognizes the winning lines and relishes delivering them. But when rationalizing his trade in a way that’s supposed to make us realize that this gun-seller, like, apparently, all gun-sellers, is either self-deceived or evil, his performance is lifeless.
The film’s technical elements follow the same pattern. The soundtrack is generic and hacky, featuring songs that have not only been overused in movies, but have made television rounds as well. The Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” that’s used to highlight emotion at the end of the movie was employed for the same purpose during an especially wrenching episode of “House” last week. The camerawork, on the other hand, boasts some clever and innovative risks, like showing the audience the world from inside the barrel of a gun.
Until the last 20 minutes, Lord of War even seems to acknowledge that people like Yuri’s competitor, Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), can have legitimate reasons for standing on the side of gun ownership. Whereas Yuri doesn’t care who he deals with so long as they can pay, Simeon carefully selects his customers with a view to giving oppressed people the means to overthrow their oppressors. Simeon’s argument that “Bullets topple evil governments faster than elections,” sounds reasonable in light of the fact that Saddam Hussein was unanimously reelected as President of Iraq not so long ago. Even America’s path to freedom, he suggests as he urges Yuri to “take a side,” was cleared by bullets and bloodshed. And later, when machete-wielding guerrillas hack an innocent mother and child to death, it reinforces the notion that guns are not the problem, man’s eternal lust for power is.
At that point, seemingly aware that his story hasn’t made the anti-gun case he intended, writer/director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Gattaca) tacks on a paranoid speech to make a point the evidence doesn’t. Not only does it assert that the President is the biggest illegal arms dealer in the world, but it implies that there is something unsavory about the United States being a member of the U.N. Security Council. In case you’re too slow for that hammer-over-the-head to get your attention, Yuri then stands in the middle of a landscape blanketed in bullets and burned-out buildings and tells the camera, “The meek won’t inherit the Earth, arms dealers will…because everyone else will have killed each other.” From that speech on, the Lord of War may as well be a paid-advertisement by the anti-gun lobby written by Michael Moore.
It has been so long since a supposed political satire actually delivered the dark comedy it promised that I have no doubt if one lived up to its P.R. campaign, it would be a smash hit. And in those few instances where Niccol allows himself to step back from his agenda, he achieves some hilariously biting moments, such as when Cage has an AK-47 from his own stock pulled on him by street thugs in a remote African village. The gun locks up and Cage apologizes, telling the men, “They don’t usually do that.” What a shame Niccol didn’t allow Lord of War to build on these exchanges and become the sort of film some part of him must have wanted to make. Instead he lets his desire to axe-grind get the better of his creative instincts and rolls yet another predictable cog off the liberal assembly line.