“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is, how do we arm the other 11?”
It’s been said so many times at this point that it’s almost a cliché, but is there any actor working who’s more frustrating and fascinating than Nicolas Cage? In just a few short years he went from an Oscar-winning talent to a surreal trainwreck of an actor – a Coppola reduced to the level of Tommy Wiseau. But every so often, he still manages to produce a genuinely great performance.
Lord of War isn’t a Cage film many people tend to remember. Sandwiched as it was between his leading role in National Treasure and the complete and utter mental breakdown that was The Wicker Man, it tends to be forgotten. Which is a shame, because not only is it a great, darkly comic parable about the worldwide arms trade, it’s also centered on the kind of performance that only Cage could bring to life.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian-born immigrant who takes to smuggling weapons the same way Tony Montana took to dealing drugs. He works his way from the small-time to a full-blown international arms dealer, using his newfound wealth to seduce the woman of his dreams (Bridget Moynahan) and ultimately attracting the attention of Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke). The influence of films like Casino and Scarface is clear to see – Montana’s “never get high on your own supply” becomes “never get shot with your own merchandise” – but thanks to Cage’s incomparable energy, the routine feels brand new.
The great Roger Ebert once wrote of Cage that “No one else can project inner trembling so effectively… he always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.” Hearing Cage wax lyrical about an AK-47 with the same referential tones that Patrick Bateman reserved for Phil Collins, one can’t help but wonder whether he missed a trick by going into acting.
Orlov is a difficult protagonist to get right because it’s such a fine balancing act. He’s an abhorrent human being who deals in death, but he’s also our protagonist. We have to be invested in him. He has to entertain. And few actors are more fundamentally entertaining than Cage. Consider the kind of people that Orlov works with on a regular basis – dictators, warlords, and genocidal maniacs. The only way to not go insane with guilt in that kind of environment is to be insane in the first place.
Orlov’s constant narration to the audience is the highlight of Andrew Niccol’s screenplay, full of biting wit. He’s proud of the empire that he’s built for himself, and never tries to come up with excuses for the deals he’s made. The only reason he never sold weapons to Osama Bin Laden was that “back then, he was always bouncing cheques.” If he does have a conscience, it resides in his brother Vitaly. Played with a wonderful wide-eyed twitchiness by Jared Leto even before he starts drawing Odessa in cocaine, he is the mirror of Yuri. Whereas Yuri hardens his resolve when faced with the awful things his merchandise does, Vitaly cannot take humanity out of the equation – you can almost see the countdown clock leading to his dramatic end.
Even without Cage, however, Lord of War is still a great film in its own right – a look into the nightmare world of murder-as-business that Joseph Heller would be proud of. Its opening sequence could be a short film all in its own right; Buffalo Springfield playing in the background, we watch a single bullet as it travels from a factory in America to a war-torn Third World country, finally coming to rest in the skull of a child soldier. Even before we hear Yuri Orlov’s story, it’s a harrowing reminder that he is just a single cog in a vast and complex machine.
But maybe it’s Cage himself, in that unmistakable drawl, who sums it up best: “They say ‘Evil prevails when good men fail to act.’ What they ought to say is ‘Evil prevails’.”