Andrew Niccol's first two films as writer-director, 1997's Gattaca and 2002's S1m0ne, were hollow, sterile sci-fi masquerading as earnest satire: The former told of a near future in which parents could genetically engineer perfect children; the latter proffered an actress who became the most famous and beloved movie star in Hollywood, though she existed only as bytes on a hard drive. And when totaling the works on Niccol's résumé, one can't discard his 1998 screenplay for The Truman Show, a prophetic look at reality television long before its ascendancy. Despite the latter movie's acuity, the three films ultimately added up to very little: They were stories in which people weren't who they believed or wanted to be, because they weren't much of anything at all. At best they were chimeras; at worst, metaphors.
Lord of War's Yuri Orlov, played by Nicolas Cage, is easily the best character Niccol has written -- a wretch of a beast who exists in this world and not in the daydreams of a filmmaker prone to using science fiction to make his dull points. Yuri, a Ukrainian émigré biding his time in New York's violent, gangster-run Little Odessa, is a peddler of weapons, from pistols to tanks to attack helicopters, who does what he does solely to make as much money as possible; he takes no sides, except his own. Yuri is not a symbol of anything other than greed run amok, and he is nothing more than a bad man who believes himself good because he can provide for his cover-girl wife (Bridget Moynahan) and their son. Not once in Lord of War does Yuri suffer a crisis of conscience, because he has none. Such weaknesses are left to other people, who will inevitably find themselves staring down the wrong end of the merchandise.
Which is not to say Lord of War doesn't proselytize the way Niccol's other movies do; it's just as guilty of preaching while entertaining, of inducing guilt and shame from the audience it attempts to amuse. Niccol can't seem to help himself: He interrupts thrilling moments, scenes of dazzling technical prowess or ones of dark, kinetic humor, to remind us that Yuri is ruinous and immoral, an accessory to genocide the world over. Ethan Hawke, as the Interpol agent Jack Valentine, chasing Yuri through war zones in Africa and Russia and elsewhere, doesn't deliver lines of dialogue; he speechifies, lecturing Yuri about his horrific job as a merchant of death. "You get rich by giving the poorest people on the planet the means to continue killing each other," Jack tells Yuri, who he's handcuffed and left to bake in the West African sun; "Nine out of ten war victims today are killed with assault rifles and small arms, like yours," he reminds, too, in case we skipped class that day. One expects a pop quiz after the credits; thank God this job requires a film critic to bring a notepad.
It's this moralizing, this slamming down of a stop sign every time the movie wants to rev its engines, that keeps Lord of War from being great. But it's three-fourths of a great movie, which is close enough during these drought-stricken days at the cinema; if nothing else, it has more brains and balls than most studio releases, for which it's to be commended and recommended. Like David O. Russell's brilliant 1999 film Three Kings, anti-war commentary masquerading as caper, Lord of War works best when it aims to be a roiling, bleak comedy; and like Three Kings, it stumbles when reaching for the point upon which it usually impales itself. Cage, like George Clooney, likewise makes for a ruthless and effective anti-hero; this is Cage's Bogart moment, where he gets to dirty himself without apology.
The opening sequence of Lord of War is so wonderfully whizbang -- fine, absofuckinglutely kick-ass -- it threatens to render the rest of the film unnecessary; the thing climaxes before it gets its shirt off. Niccol follows a single bullet from its creation to its use, from the factory to the forehead of a young African boy. Wordless, seamless, flawless, it does Niccol's dirty work for him, just as Russell's following the trail of a bullet into Mark Wahlberg's lungs in Three Kings was more visceral and overwhelming than any mere description. The opening credits of Lord of War might be the best couple of minutes at the theater all year: a roller-coaster ride during which the thrills give way to chills with which the rest of the film simply cannot compete.
Yet all Niccol had to do from there was tell Yuri's story: his restless childhood in Brighton Beach, his immigrant father who pretends to be a Jew, his introduction to and fascination with gang violence, his rise to the top of the gun-running heap, his seduction of Moynahan's supermodel, his love for and betrayal of his short-order cook little brother (Jared Leto), his fragile friendship with dictator Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) and his Rambo-obsessed son (Sammi Rotibi), his game of cat and mouse with Valentine. When he sticks to the narrative without referencing the footnotes, he's got something special, something profound, something astounding. But then Niccol can't help himself, and on come the speeches and statistics and small talk used to make the larger point that guns are bad and the people who sell them even worse, and the great Lord of War becomes a load of bore.