Lord of War is a black comedy that labors so hard to be ironic it forgets to be funny. It’s better than the misfired Deal of the Century, but it still fails to engage your outrage because it views its subject through the amoral eyes of Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage). Whatever the aims of the filmmakers, the audience ultimately empathizes with the hero, undercutting the film’s condemnation of gunrunning.
Yuri is Ukranian emigre living with his family in the Little Odessa neighborhood of New York during the early eighties. Stuck in a dead end job at his faux-Jewish father’s restaurant, he has an empiphany when he witnesses an attempted mob hit. He realizes that, beyond food, the one thing people all over the world seem to need is the means to kill each other. He drags his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) into the arms business. Things are a little slow going during the Cold War because the industry is controlled by dealers who work for the CIA or KGB, like Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm). Yuri and Vitaly eke out a living selling guns in Lebanon and Columbia, but the drug cartels preferred method of payment lands Vitaly in rehab and out of the arms business.
Still business is good enough for Yuri to marry Ava (Bridget Moynahan), the supermodel he’s had a crush on since grade school. Then in 1991 he gets the greatest Christmas present an arms dealer can receive: the collapse of the Soviet Union. This opens up the largest arms inventory in history for the taking by someone with old family ties in the old Red Army. This gives Yuri a decisive advantage over old school arms sellers like Weisz, namely the lack of any moral compunction over who buys his merchandise.
Yuri’s success brings scrutiny from the Elliot Ness of Interpol agents, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who pursues obsessive pursues the arms dealer over the course of two decades as he opens up the African growth markets of Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia. For her part, Ava enjoys the fruits of Yuri’s labors while consciously not asking him too many questions about how he earns his money.
His performance as the slick, morally adaptable Yuri is classic Nicholas Cage. He is very adept at appearing outwardly clueless while you can literally see the wheels turning behind his eyes. However, I think the film largely misses the mark. It’s not funny in the necessary Dr. Strangelove sense of the word. We’re supposed to find Yuri’s ethical detachment both humorous and horrifying, but Yuri isn’t far enough out there to work as comedy and his likability ultimately works to undercut the horror.
To its credit, Lord of War effectively outlines the global scope of the problem but I learned less than I would have in a comparable documentary and, on top of that, I was unsuccessfully entertained.