Lord of War (15)

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The Independent Culture

In theory, Andrew Niccol's Lord of War ought to be big news, as provocative a piece of multiplex-friendly shit-stirring as, say, Fahrenheit 9/11. But it's a lost opportunity - overextended razzle-dazzle that flounders in self-importance and inflated production values. Writer-director Niccol is one of Hollywood's smarter, and odder, talents: he wrote The Truman Show, then directed the intriguing dystopian sci-fi drama Gattaca (plus a well-intentioned high-concept dud, S1m0ne, about a digitally-generated starlet). Lord of War is Niccol's coming-of-age film, an expensive, passionate polemical satire.

Niccol's anti-hero is Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a Ukrainian raised in Brighton Beach, who realises that guns will always have more of a market than borscht, and sets up shop as an arms dealer. Yuri's path to unimaginable wealth takes him from Beirut to the Balkans, and wherever he goes, whether it's on a freight plane or a cargo ship, lounging in his Manhattan penthouse or sweating it out in Sierra Leone, we nearly always see him in a sleek black suit: that's the distinctive keynote of satiric irreality in Niccol's dark picaresque, an anti-Candide of amorality and cynicism. Adding to the moral-fairytale flavour, Yuri narrates his progress in glum voice-over throughout - a device, unfortunately, that not only makes the film more explicit than it needs to be but also slows it down disastrously, to the pace of Cage's ever-sleepier drawl.

Hard going at two hours, Lord of War sets out at once to chart a supposedly likeable rogue's descent into perdition, and to provide a brief history of two decades' corruption and chicanery in the real world. The film is least convincing in its crammed, episodic account of Yuri's private life: the early scenes in New York's Little Odessa suggest that Niccol is aiming for the energetic sprawl of a Saul Bellow-esque Bildungsroman. But this strand becomes increasingly awkward, partly because Bridget Moynahan has such a vaporous presence as Yuri's deviously-won trophy wife. As for his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, whose credibility has always suffered from those kitty-cat eyes), he's variously a devoted sidekick, a loose cannon to complicate Yuri's life, and an alter ego to highlight his emotional repression (Yuri may be screwed up, but he doesn't feel the need to snort entire maps of the Ukraine drawn in white powder). Vitaly is also the vehicle for the film's most tendentious writing: "Be careful, Yuri," he warns, "those things you sell kill - inside."

When it comes to Niccol's central argument, it's one thing to lecture us on the damage that guns cause, quite another to do it with such sleek hard-nosed obviousness. The mechanically brisk title sequence follows a single bullet on its path from manufacture to final destination, the body of a young African boy; the message is delivered with the same streamlined efficiency as Yuri's wares. There's a terrible forced flamboyance (or overkill, if you want to be military about it) to Niccol's visual metaphors: the film is bookended with Cage standing on a carpet made up of countless bullets.

When it comes to the African section, Niccol is as opportunistic in his use of images as Yuri is in his trade. In Africa, the wheel of a plane just stops short of crushing a baby: an offensively facile shock effect. The film's Africans are cartoons of one sort or another: brutes, innocents or corpses, usually in the form of crowds of extras. In Liberia, Yuri deals with a murderous dictator (Eamonn Walker), modelled apparently on the real-life Charles Taylor, whose son is permanently escorted by two stetsoned hookers right out of a Snoop Dogg video. Stranded in the desert, Yuri watches his plane stripped down to its bones by a horde of Africans, speeded up to resemble ravaging ants.

Despite its message about Western exploitation, the film comes off as respecting Africa no more than Yuri does.

Lord of War suffers from some familiar flaws of the self-consciously intelligent US blockbuster: humourlessness masquerading as caustic irony, and America-centrism in the guise of global compassion. What makes it all sit so heavily is partly the loss of that twitchy wolfishness that used to distinguish Cage - here he's careworn and costive from the start - and partly the laborious script, with its resoundingly meaningless aphorisms ("There are only two tragedies in life - one is not getting what you want, the other is getting it.") Lord of War aspires to the steely zing of Kalashnikov firepower, but it hits its targets as leadenly as any old-school Hollywood bazooka.