Retrospective: Lord of War (2005)


Lord of War is the first film I can remember seeing in which arms dealers are not evil, baby eating monsters. To take a kindly view upon arms dealers (especially the unofficial type) and make a Hollywood movie out of it seems strange and interesting. If you think you might enjoy a black comedy about the dealing of weapons in various third world hellholes then read on!

This movie is in many ways a wonderful counterpoint to films such as Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond and the various films in which good people do good and save innocents in horrible African hellholes, filled with murderous barbarity. In many ways, it shows a much more realistic and cynical view. The actions of one person doing right will not change the path of violence when it has already been set off. It shows the deeply unpleasant nature of various rebel groups and freedom fighters who often seem as unpleasant and toxic as those they are opposing. This is a cynical view and having worked academically on the
subject for four years, I can attest to the accuracy of this statement. This movie takes vague inspiration from various real life arms dealers, with Viktor Bout being the biggest influence on the Nicolas Cage character.

A good soundtrack and a little narration are often factors that make me friendly towards a movie. Lord of War features the narration of Cage, playing Yuri Orlov, from a family of Russian émigrés who takes on a Jewish identity to escape to America. He explains his situation and family, which includes his younger brother Vitally (Jared Leto), who has a whole sack of problems and already looks and acts like a bit of a stoner. He lives in Brighton Beach which is where he gets his first introduction to the arms trade when he sees an attempt at a hit. He realises that the arms trade is as eternal as food which inspires him to get involved, enlisting the help of his wayward brother to begin the process of becoming a good arms dealer, whilst dealing with the problems of payment (paying in drugs for instance) and also trying to marry the girl of his dreams who happens to be born in the same neighbourhood, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). He gets his big break when the Soviet Union falls which gives him access to their huge armoires and creates a boom in the market. He talks about his impact and his rivalry with Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), someone who rejected him when he started out.

I like this movie despite the eye wateringly bad Amnesty International advert at the beginning. It’s not preachy, it’s got the sort of dark humour that I love with all these wonderfully cynical characters. Cage does a masterful job of someone who gives a rather entertaining version on how to become filthy rich in arms trade. He gives examples of good and bad practice as part of his lessons to the audience whilst being aware of his lack of morality and the fact that he sees things in a simple matter of benefit for himself, apart from the brief time he works legitimately for his wife. The film doesn’t preach about how evil he is or how immoral the work is which is rather refreshing. There is almost always a stock villain character and instead this movie gives a slightly nuanced view of the illegal trade while hinting at the how the legal and illegal trade work in a symbiotic relationship, forming part of the larger real politic.

I also really appreciate the way it’s filmed, such as the opening credits showing the path of one round of ammunition (7.62) from the factory to the battlefield and into its target, a child solider. It is filled with lots of similar stylistic ideas such as ending with him on a street covered in ammunition. There is a lot of clever artsy work and use of filters as everything in Africa is oversaturated compared with New York or Russia.

This movie starts dark and gets even darker by the end. I can understand that this level of cynicism and the subject matter isn’t for everyone but it is another good Nicolas Cage movie and that makes it worth your time. It’s an interesting movie from an interesting perspective, while being rather entertaining.

Review by Harry Riedl

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