Given a choice between a daring film that reaches far and doesn't quite sustain itself at those high levels, and a film that settles for a conventional paint-by-numbers approach but hits all the notes perfectly within its limited range, I'll opt for the former in every case. Such is Lord of War: an ambitious film in the best sense of the word. Edgy, intelligent, and critical, Lord of War gets off to a fantastic start, setting an extremely high standard for itself, a standard that no mere "action thriller" could hope to meet. In the end, the film doesn't manage to wrap things up with the same punch that it started out with, but that's not much of a criticism: it's still worth a dozen more conventional films, and it's likely to stick in the viewer's mind long after the latest action star vehicle has come and gone into the bargain bin.
Lord of War is the story of a gunrunner, a trafficker in the illegal and quasi-legal arms trade between nations. Nicholas Cage, who always surprises me with more acting range than I expect, has the challenging role of Yuri Orlov, a Brooklyn-born ne'er-do-well who decides one day that the profit margins on legitimate enterprise like his family's restaurant are too thin. As it happens, Orlov has a talent for salesmanship, and what he sells is guns: first supplying the local mobsters, then moving up the food chain to selling the instruments of death on a larger scale across the world. With a voiceover narration by Orlov, reflecting on the events of his life, and a meticulous attention to the real details of history in the years when this story unfolds (from the 1980s to the present day), Lord of War is a memoir, a reflection on his career, rather than a simple rising-and-falling-action narrative.
The filmmakers have taken the challenges of this unconventional approach and made them into essential pieces of the film's success. Take, for instance, the dazzling credits sequence, with the camera following the path of a single bullet from the factory to its end in battle: combining catchy music with the threat inherent in the bullets we see being made and shipped and used, it sets the tone of the film from the start, hooking us into the events but also underscoring the horrible banality of it all, making us feel interested but also slightly uncomfortable.
After an opening sequence like that, I honestly expected the film to settle down into conventional territory, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Lord of War manages to sustain its intense energy. The first forty or so minutes - nearly half of this two-hour-long film - are paced to absolute perfection. There's not a single wasted moment, not so much as a single shot out of place, as Lord of War chronicles the origins and rise to power of Orlov. If the film had managed to maintain that pace throughout the whole film, it would have been a masterpiece. As it is, at about the halfway mark, the pace slows slightly and the film shifts to paying more attention to a critical period in Orlov's life; at this point, it feels a little more ordinary. Let's be clear, though: the second half is not as powerful as the first half, but even so, it's extremely well done.
Throughout the film, from beginning to end, we get an interesting choice of style: though it's mainly realistic, there are occasional slightly surrealistic touches that underscore key themes of the film. Unconventional editing, cinematography, even sound and visual effects are occasionally called into play to create an effective shot or scene. Even in one of the final scenes of the film, a scene that could have been filmed in a completely conventional way is handled creatively: Orlov describes what's going to happen in the next few minutes and as he speaks, we're shown slightly stylized shots of what he's describing.
What I like best about Lord of War is that, for the most part, it manages to be an intensely critical film that nevertheless lets viewers come to their own conclusions. The arms trade is portrayed in all its ugly, banal, sordid reality. There's no glamor here, and no hiding the ugly truth: the merchandise that Orlov sells is used to murder human beings. At times he weakly attempts to justify his work, pointing out that while he sells the guns, he doesn't force people to use them, or invoking the idea of "defense"... but it's clear that he doesn't believe himself for a minute. It's almost shocking how Lord of War faces up to the worst aspects of human nature.
Orlov is a very interesting character, and Cage handles him well. He's not a monster; we see that he does feel something for his wife and particularly his brother. Nor is he some kind of psychopath, selling weapons because he loves destruction. No; he's motivated by perhaps the most conventionally praised virtue in the United States, the desire to make something of himself, to work within the capitalist system to move up from his ghetto origins, and as it happens, illegal arms are highly profitable. He even takes pride in his work and how well he does it. Yet he can also look at a refugee camp and not flinch as he closes a deal to sell the weapons that will slaughter those unarmed people. Can "if I don't do it, someone else will" excuse everything, or anything? The market system, buying and selling without regard for what's being sold and to whom, is clearly off the rails here, but at what level - high or low - can it be fixed? Lord of War also wisely avoids falling into the typical feel-good character-development track of "villain rises to heights, suffers, falls to lows, repents or is punished": the film includes some elements of this story arc, but not all of them... so just as in real life, we're never quite sure where the character of Orlov is going to end up.
The one thing that I wish Lord of War had done differently is this: I wish the filmmakers had trusted enough in the power of their material to let it speak for itself. As it is, the film closes with an explicit statement linking the events of the film with the troubling reality that our society ought to deal with. I think that the message is quite clear enough, and all the more powerful when it's left to the viewer to make the final connections, but I imagine that the filmmakers were (logically enough) afraid of the film being taken in exactly the wrong way (like the way that Bruce Springsteen's vehemently anti-war song "Born in the USA" has been co-opted as a soundtrack for gung-ho patriotism).
But even with that qualm in mind, I have to say that Lord of War has courage in the way that it wraps up its story. I won't spoil anything, but I can tell you that the film follows the story and characters to a conclusion that is honest and powerful. As certain plot elements started to come into play late in the story, I feared that Lord of War would take the Hollywood-style feel-good escape hatch, but it doesn't: it stays true to its material. And as such, it's sure to stay in viewers' minds.
Lord of War: 2-Disc Special Edition is packaged in a slim cardboard case inside a cardboard slipcover.
Lord of War looks good; it just doesn't look quite as good as I'd expect from a brand-new film in the age of good DVD transfers. The anamorphically enhanced image is clean and attractive overall, but some edge enhancement is present, so the picture isn't as crisp as it could be. Colors look natural but are not as vibrant as they could be, and sometimes there's a bit of grain in the image. The final effect is that Lord of War looks solid, but it's not going to wow viewers with the transfer.
One potential area of concern is the film's aspect ratio. While the film was apparently originally shown in theaters in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the DVD presentation is in 1.85:1. As I was watching the film, I didn't notice any instances of bad framing, so it's hard to say whether this is cropped from the preferred ratio, or simply a different acceptable presentation.
The two-disc version of Lord of War sports a DTS 6.1 track, giving it an edge over the single-disc version, which has only a 5.1 and a 2.0. The DTS track provides an immersive and enjoyable audio experience, with a nicely full, rich sound and crisp special effects. The sound quality is most notable in the songs used in the soundtrack; the musical choices here are distinctive and add a great deal to the overall feel of the film. It's worth commenting that Lord of War is not really an action movie, despite the fact that the packaging and subject matter implies that it is. We do get occasional special-effects-heavy scenes with explosions and gunfire, but these are just emphatic touches in what's primarily a character study and drama.
Compared to the 5.1 track, the DTS track is significantly crisper, cleaner, and richer; the 5.1 track does a perfectly fine job, but the DTS really brings out the details and texture of the soundtrack and is certainly the better track.
Disc 1, in addition to the film, offers a full-length audio commentary track from writer/director Andrew Niccol. It's a reasonably interesting track, though rather low-key.
The bulk of the special features are on Disc 2. We get a 20-minute piece on "The Making of Lord of War"; it has a slightly promotional feel, but still provides some interesting insights into the making of the film. A 14-minute segment called "Making a Killing: Inside the International Arms Trade" seems promising, but doesn't really tell us a lot that wasn't made clear in the film itself; on the other hand, it does emphatically underscore that Lord of War is sticking very closely to the real facts about the arms trade. We also get seven deleted scenes, text information on a selection of guns mentioned in the film, trailers for other Lions Gate films, and a photo gallery.
None of these special features (except for the trailers) appear on the single-disc version.
Lord of War is a film that has the power to hook you in and surprise you; it has a powerful theme and the punch to deliver it effectively. It's definitely a film that I recommend picking up, and the two-disc Special Edition is a much better choice than the single-disc version, by virtue of its very nice DTS 6.1 soundtrack. Highly recommended.