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Photograph by Garth Stead

A Seller's Market: Ethan Hawke (left) tries to stop Nicolas Cage from flooding Africa with weapons in 'Lord of War.'

Shell Shock

The best intentions can't save Nicolas Cage in Andrew Niccol's 'Lord of War'

By Richard von Busack

IT IS no pleasure to watch the craziest yet most soulful actor of the 1990s muddle through another bad movie, and yet that's the case with Nicolas Cage and Lord of War. A failed attempt at that always-tricky genre, the black comedy, this movie's arresting poster and useful theme disguise a story that ends up bathing in the wrong kind of cynicism. Cage's narration, a variation on Ray Liotta's in GoodFellas, tells the story of a man in the illegal gun trade who sells weapons by the boatload. Sharp lines abound; you've seen them in the previews, but there are others: "An AK-47 is simple enough for a child to operate. And they do."

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian raised in "Little Odessa," Brighton Beach, by a father who first posed as a Soviet Jew and then began to think of himself as one. That's complicated shorthand to explain how Orlov inherited a late-blooming conscience. Right off, all the signals are wrong, from the Jewish joke to the overdoneness of how hellish Brighton Beach is (compared to the Ukraine?). We realize that a background of deprivation will explain how grasping Orlov became and how determined he'll be to fight his way out of the neighborhood.

As his deals grow grander, Orlov is all the more like the gangster from every other gangster movie. The checklist is in place: weakling brother (Jared Leto), beautiful-but-no-good wife (Sex and the City vet Bridget Moynahan), older gangster (Ian Holm) who snubbed him on the way up, whom he surpasses—and, lastly, the cop (Ethan Hawke as an Interpol agent) who corners the criminal and makes him face himself. The escapades of a gun runner—the bribes, the narrow escapes—come across as real, but except for a rough airplane landing and some meetings with a madman African dictator (Eamonn Walker, who steals the movie), they are not dramatized with any tension.

Director and writer Andrew Niccol is a former commercial maker who debuted with the script for The Truman Show and went on to Gattaca and Simone. He fields striking visuals, like the opening and closing images of Orlov standing in a desert of spent brass shells. But the movie takes place between a beginning and an ending quip. Lord of War is a dark joke without a twist. Niccol tackles a huge subject: the greed that turned Africa into a continent of the dead and the dying. In making a comedy on this subject, redemption might not be necessary, but a punch line is. Finally, all Lord of War does is comment, Yeah, that's man for you, evil yet banal.

This is the worst kind of dud, in that it gives the audience an excuse not to care about the dumping of guns and ammo on the Third World. On a merely artistic note, it is a shame to see Cage—who possesses the suavity of Sean Connery mated with the hysteria of Gene Wilder—in yet another half-baked effort. Having made a fortune in the denatured video-game-like National Treasure, Cage went out on a limb to star in something risky and off-putting. He'll have no encouragement to go off the deep end if this fails.

Lord of War (R; 122 min.), directed and written by Andrew Niccol, photographed by Amir M. Mokri and starring Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke and Jared Leto, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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