Lord of War

dir. Andrew Niccol

Whether envisioning a future ruled by DNA (Gattaca) or the reality-junkie universe of The Truman Show, writer-director Andrew Niccol certainly gives good pitch. Once you push past the ingenuity of his high-concept premises, though, problems have a way of arising—chiefly when Niccol has to flesh out his whiz-bang scenarios with recognizable human behavior.

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Lord of War, Niccol's ambitious, blacknasty take on arms dealing, certainly has its share of niceties, most noticeably a wittily subdued performance by Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov, but it can never quite get a fix on the delivery of its volatile subject matter. Beginning with a promisingly surreal Matterhorn of expended shells, the story flashes back to Yuri, a Russian immigrant opportunist, as he slides up the death merchant food chain, from single-Uzi sales to wheeling and dealing with multinational war machines. Throughout, Ethan Hawke's eager-beaver Interpol agent does what he can to hasten the arms trader's inevitable downfall.

When the film deals with the nuts and bolts of the weapons business—especially Yuri's uneasy coexistence with a sadistic Liberian despot (the scene-stealing, Freon-veined Eamonn Walker)—it carries a nifty, amoral charge. Where it falters is in the larger rags-to-riches-to-rags framework, which comes off as both moldy and maddeningly condescending (the moment where Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" plays over a shot of some folks doing blow may well be the head-thumping nadir of the year).