Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.
Roger Ferris has been working undercover in the Middle East since the War on Terror took hold. He is usually a very effective agent, that is, when office jockey intelligence director Ed Hoffman isn’t interfering. Playing most missions for maximum political effect, the Washington based overseer manages to mess up many of Ferris’ best laid plans. While working with the government of Jordan, the young gun uncovers an Al-Qaeda safe house. Approaching Hani, the Minister in charge of security, Ferris sets up a deal to take down the terrorist cell from the inside. Naturally, Hoffman steps in and screws things up. This sours his agent with the Jordanians, the local population, and the evildoers he is charged with destroying. Soon, everything - and everyone - is threatened.
Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter. While it may sound like beating a dead cinematic mare, we expect more from Scott. Clearly, his fixation with Australian antagonist Crowe has been a dull spot in his otherwise bright career. Gladiator was no great shakes (Oscars be damned) and A Good Year and American Gangster prove that tying your fortunes to a single signature actor is not always a guarantee of DeNiro/Scorsese success. Here, Crowe is reduced to a supporting player, a piggish US bureaucrat with his Southern drawling mug so far up his buttocks that he can’t see the reality of how ineffectual his efforts really are. It’s an interesting turn, but nothing more.
DiCaprio, on the other hand, succeeds in drawing us into this material, making his sympathetic spy - especially when it comes to the non-terrorist elements of the region - incredibly inviting. Looking a little rough around the edges, and dropping most of the mannerisms that highlight his still budding youth (he’s only 34), the superstar steals everything in Body of Lies - the performance points, the moral compass, and the entertainment value. While Brit Mark Strong offers an equally smart turn as Hani, the Jordanian heavy, this is Leo’s film from beginning to end. Had Scott simply settled on one of many fresh faces craved from the cathode that pass for big screen talents today, nothing here would work. As it stands, with DiCaprio’s Academy worthy turn, we can tolerate the rest of the redundancy.
Indeed, Body of Lies is nothing more than The Kingdom with more talking, Rendition with less torture - unless you count the convoluted screenplay by William Monahan. Still suffering from the careful clockwork plotting necessary to make The Departed ebb and flow, his adaptation of David Ignatius’ novel seems far more complicated than need be. Because Crowe is out of the locational loop most of the time, the forward motion of the story is shuttered so Hoffman can phone up and get his bungling and barbs in. And since we see how Hani sets up his own brand of insurgent infiltration, we can more or less guess the outcome - especially with Scott foreshadowing the denouement several times within the finale. In fact, Body of Lies suggests both Monahan and the man in the director’s chair got a little lost while bringing this project to life.
Thankfully, DiCaprio keeps us grounded - and interested. One of the movie’s biggest mistakes is assuming that American audiences, deadened as they are to the bumbling Bush policies of the last eight years, still have a rooting interest in seeing Arab bad guys biting the dust. Unlike the aforementioned Peter Berg actioner, which gave us characters and concerns to champion, Body of Lies is more insular. The focus frequently shifts from the big picture and the overall goal to Ferris and Hoffman’s high school style one-upmanship. Scott tries to countermand the contentiousness by cutting to shots of things blowing up. Yet like much of the movie’s context, these sequences play as sidelights to more cellphone conversations between name celebrities. We want action and intrigue. We are stuck watching Crowe spewing epithets during his daughter’s soccer game.
Basically, Body of Lies is one of those “who cares” productions. Aside from DiCaprio (and to a smaller extent, Strong), there is little else here that is compelling. Competent? Sure. Commercial? Who knows? Last year’s spite of Gulf War efforts failed because screenwriters decided that American soldiers should be recast as the bad guys. Scott and Monahan avoid this, yet they toss in the kind of surreal Executive Branch stratagem that also makes citizens want to revolt. Apparently, we need white hat/black hat simplicity when it comes to something as multifaceted as the War on Terror. If anyone could have made such a one-note approach work, it’s Scott. Sadly, whatever imagination and originality he possessed 20 years ago has all but disappeared. Body of Lies represents Ridley Scott Mach 2, and as upgrades go, it’s not successful.