Ladies and gentlemen, we have an anomaly. Nic Cage has at least one dirty notch in his belt.
I’ve touched on this before, but you’d be hard pressed to find a role where Cage plays anything other than a hardened (anti)hero, much less a straight up villain. As gunrunner Yuri Orlov, he’s still far from detestable, but we certainly don’t root for a man who resells post-Soviet armaments to fund third world military campaigns.
Lord of War, director Andrew Niccol’s third film, details Yuri’s rise in gunrunning, but it’s also a declaration of larger forces at work. Born from Hungarian parents, Yuri brings his cokehead fuck-up of a brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) along for the ride. We can already see how saccharine Vitaly’s downfall will end. We can envision Yuri’s wooing and evental marriage to Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) ending in lies and broken hearts. It’s all very “Henry Hill,” and Niccol’s script telegraphs Yuri’s life course far too early for any true revelations.
A colleague of producer Scott Rudin, Niccol has an eye for color and clearly a student of the David Fincher School of Filters; saffron African sandscapes and cold blue of New York hustle and bustle are plenty of proof. And like Fincher, Niccol also has an eye for the same free-roaming camera in Fight Club and Panic Room. Our view is guided by affixing the camera to the hood of a Cadillac or more famously in following the “life of a bullet.”
The Truman Show writer is noticeably less skilled in his casting though. Bridget Moynahan is little more than a pretty face and unlike the likes of Cage and veteran Ian Holm as rival gunrunner Simeon Weisz, she can’t deliver a lot of Niccol’s more rote dialogue. Jared Leto? He’s very… Jared Leto here. Niccol does stumble upon a fantastic discovery in Eamonn Walker’s violently cynical turn as Liberian dictator Andre Baptiste. Walker becomes an uneasy customer of Cage, and his philosophies on violence are as intriguing as they are horrific. Walker is a sigh of relief among a cast of melodramatic and flat characters.
Cage’s Yuri Orlov falls into that latter distinction. One problem with playing such a flat, vapid character is that any accompanying performance risks reading as, well, just as flat and vapid. Chalk this up as another case of Nic knowing when to reign it in — or when his director knows better than to let him try otherwise. If you squint, Cage might convince you he’s playing a much younger man, and he eases into the chameleon qualities of Yuri’s business shtick — tossing out a compelling argument here, breaking into African dialect there; — think Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking with less natural charm, a blacker conscience, and a better tailor. And even amid the gray overcast of Cage’s even keel, a few rays of crazy sunlight manage to poke through. The best is when Ethan Hawke’s hotshot Interpol agent orders Cage to make an emergency landing with his illegal cargo:
In spite of Niccol’s schizophrenic construction of the landing itself, it’s a sequence elevated by Cage’s energy — perfect, since when we never see Yuri lose his cool. He’s forced to improvise on an exit strategy. It’s a rare moment where Cage doesn’t have everything figured out, where he doesn’t have a prepackaged response. And it’s completely undermined by the end.
Lord of War concludes on an ominous note. Yuri, having lost his family and inadvertently killed his brother (see?), is placed into custody by Hawke. Just as Hawke starts to enjoy the fruits of his decade-long pursuit, our gunrunner cracks a slight smile and drops a major truth bomb. He’s not really going to jail. He isn’t even staying in custody for much longer. Hawke can’t believe it, and for a moment neither can we. It’s only when Niccol plays that final card in his hand, an obvious riff on disgraced Col. Oliver North, that we see the entire picture. Cage’s Yuri Orlov is bailed out by Uncle Sam because there are bigger things at play here than right and wrong. Gunrunners, their customers, and even the authorities who bust them, they’re just cogs in a bigger, cyclical money machine that’s existed ever since violence and greed got drunk and hooked up that one night. Cage embraces his role as a government tool, and his unfeeling coolness suddenly seems more like the result of a numbing, soul-killing life. “Evil prevails.”
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