“Selling guns is like selling vacuum cleaners.” According to Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), there are over 550 million firearms in circulation worldwide, sold by governments and individuals, to governments and individuals, warlords and drug dealers. Something of a master salesman himself, Yuri looks at the business philosophically, or maybe just pragmatically: if he wasn’t making money off it, someone else would be. And besides, he’s good at it.
The perverse center of Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War, Ukrainian émigré Yuri sees himself as a good enough American, having absorbed the moral, political, and legal lessons of his adopted home. He and his brother Vitali (Jared Leto) grow up in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, scamming for money and status, passing as Jews, surrounded by gangster-style violence. As the film skips through their childhoods, Yuri — personable and self-aware — assures you in voiceover, “You don’t have to worry: I’m not going to tell you a pile of lies to make me look good.” Indeed, he seems comfortable exposing his basest inclinations, as when he realizes (“Then it hit me…” while watching a mobster shot dead in front of him) that dealing guns is an endlessly profitable line of work. He does, he says, “have a natural instinct for smuggling contraband.”
He puts this instinct to initial use during the Cold War, attending conventions where bikini-clad girlies help to hawk tanks and ordinance. He resolutely refuses to take sides, as they never seem to stick anyway; nations, including the U.S., take up with allies who are most convenient and useful at any given moment. Yuri’s “first break” comes after the terrorist bombing of the Marine base in Lebanon, when the U.S. leaves behind an impressive array of munitions. Following the end of the Soviet Union, Yuri’s Uncle Dmitri (Eugene Lazarev) has access to much of the $32 billion worth of arms that goes “missing.” And so the ambitious young entrepreneur leaps into the global not-so-black market (competing with a mysterious veteran seller named Simeon Weisz [Ian Holm]), backed by his compliant muscle-boy, Vitali.
While Yuri talks you through Lord of War, the film hardly assumes his perspective. Rather, it underlines his many moral missteps, beginning with his inability to deal with Vitali’s abrupt slide into drug addiction (Yuri drops him at an expensive rehab clinic, with a good-bye toot and a promise that he’ll meet movies stars) and including his longtime relationship with brutal Liberian warlord Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker, electric as he was in Oz) and military officer/psycho-killer son Andre (Sammi Robibi). It is Baptiste Sr.’s stereotypical refusal (maybe stereotypical inability) to put together proper English syntax that provides the film’s title — he names Yuri a “lord of war,” as culpable for Africa’s persistent and pathological turmoil as any local leader. The inversion, however, makes its own point, underlining the meaning of the term as well as undermining it: the lord of war, like the “bath of blood,” is an elusive figment and a horrible reality at the same time.
Less effectively, the film sets Yuri against dogged, undeveloped Interpol Agent Ryan (Ethan Hawke), who essentially embodies the legal system that has so little to say about international gun-running (except, really, to back off pursuit when it threatens national financial interests). Ryan serves a purpose, overtly and occasionally clunkily, embodying a belief in moral rightness and the capacity of legal structures to put things right — this even as Yuri has counterintelligence agents on his payroll. It’s to the film’s credit that Jack’s faith is proved false, as his efforts can’t possibly restructure the shady world Yuri inhabits so completely.
Similarly schematic is Yuri’s primary prize, literal supermodel Ava (Bridget Moynahan), first revealed in his version of events as a hometown/dream girl, waving in slow motion in a Brighton Beach parade and thus eternally locked in his memory as ultimate object of desire. As he tells it, all his activities lead him at last to a fantastical wooing process: his wealth, at long last, allows him to arrange a non-existent photo shoot and book an island hotel in order to impress her. Of course, she doesn’t “know” exactly what he does for a living, and even when she does seem to at last figure it out, post-marriage and post-first child (Nicolai, played by young Jack Niccol), she’s unwilling (or maybe unable) to feel responsible.
As Yuri plainly gets off on risk — the threat of violence, the possibility of getting caught — he’s also broadly representative of cavalier attitudes toward risk concerning vulnerable individuals and communities. As he refuses even to consider moral dimensions when making sales (though he does consider them in the abstract), he becomes something of an addict himself. Where Vitali craves cocaine and Ava youthful beauty and spotlights, he’s hooked on the rush of violence. At first, this rush is based on the idea of violence, but when Baptiste forces him to commit a completely ruthless, intimate, and bloody murder, Yuri suddenly is thrilled by the act itself.
Never subtle, Lord of War makes its argument — war is a business — by broad satire and character types. But Yuri is only the tip of this iceberg, a fast-talking, practical-minded individual. The more egregious offenders are broad-based corporations and national governments; (at least) four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are the world’s leaders in selling firearms to “developing” countries. The fact that this is somewhat common knowledge means that the film’s climax is not so much a surprise at it is a declaration. Angry and frustrated, it’s part of a current surge of socially and politically conscious films (including The Constant Gardner, and the upcoming History of Violence and Good Night, And Good Luck) that appear to be taking pages from last year’s explicitly “politicized” documentaries. Though Yuri thinks otherwise, taking sides is inevitable. Lord of War makes that much clear as can be.