When death makes very good business

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When death makes very good business

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Last year, Michael Moore created plenty of hubbub around a new breed of film called the “political documentary.” Moore’s production consisted of a fat American shoving cameras in people’s faces, then editing the film to make it all look extremely clever and cutting edge. But in the end, it was just preaching to the choir, and didn’t bring many people to Moore’s side. In fact, “Fahrenheit 911,” with its empty bluster and intellectually bankrupt conspiracy theories, probably helped Bush win a second term.
But if fiction disguised as truth doesn’t help your cause, fiction that’s uncomfortably close to truth can. I imagine that’s the idea behind “Lord of War,” the new film in which Ukranian immigrant Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage) narrates his life as an international arms dealer.
The film’s disturbing opening sequence follows the path of a bullet from factory to boat to jeep to African soldier to inside the brain of an innocent bystander, all from the bullet’s point of view. It’s this matter-of-fact approach to the material that makes it much more effective than any foaming polemic.
Cage’s dry voice narrates his character’s rise from a dead-end neighborhood in New York to his first gun sale to his expansion overseas. Orlov uses his gun money to buy the woman, home and family of his dreams, all while staying one step ahead of Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the Interpol agent on his tail. International law in the wake of the USSR’s implosion has tied Valentine’s hands.
In the arms world according to Yuri Orlov, “There’s one gun for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is, how do we arm the other 11?” Kalashnikovs are “so easy a child could use them ― and they do.” The discharge of an automatic weapon becomes the ring of a cash register. A Liberian warlord’s son (Sammi Rotibi), driving around his dirt-poor capital firing into the air, asks Orlov to procure him “the gun of Rambo,” and Orlov replies, “Part one, two or three?”
As the opening reflects, the style of the film is its biggest asset. The characters are all, in their own way, channeling Jiminy Cricket, highlighting to Orlov his culpability.
Just like its characters, the cinematography is chock full of symbolic tableaux. The most memorable has Orlov sitting on a fallen statue of Lenin, a line of newly-purchased tanks stretching to the horizon. The tremendous danger the end of the Cold War caused could hardly be summed up better. The film’s writer-director, Andrew Niccol, is thoroughly committed to his material, making “Lord of War” a refreshingly unique film.
Orlov goes to great lengths to explain that what he does may be his fault, but that without him another merchant of death would just step in to take his place. The final message: in a world where the biggest superpower is also the biggest weapons merchant, constant civil war can’t be prevented.
But even that may be too optimistic an interpretation. After all, the film offers no reason for hope. In the end, Cage says, “They say evil prevails when good men do nothing. They ought to say, evil prevails.”
It’s an ending as disconcerting and depressing as reality. That’s some good fiction.


Lord of War
Drama / English
122 min.
Opens today


by Ben Applegate

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