Nicholas Cage just can’t catch a break. For every Adaptation, he makes at least five Wicker Mans. For every good note he hits in a movie, he’ll have a hundred horribly botched lines. He’s a flute that plays two notes: good guy and bad guy. He can’t really play anything in between.
That said, it’s very hard for me to hate Cage. There are a few movies—not many, but they do exist—where he somehow pulls this wonderful ability to connect with the audience out of god knows where. When Cage is put into a situation where he can play the clever, wisecracking, lead actor who is in way over his head, he really shines. Don’t ask me why or how, he just does. Adaptation proved that, so did The Rock (though Sean Connery was the one who really carried the movie). But the movie I want to talk about this week is one of my favorite overlooked gems: Lord of War.
The problem with Lord of War is that when it came out, no one quite knew what to make of it. Was it a dramatized documentary of the international arms trade? Was it the personal story of Yuri Orlov’s rise and fall in the business? Or was it just some kind of botched mess that tried unsuccessfully to combine the two? The answer is something of a cop-out: It’s all of these things, and it’s none of these things.
The movie follows Cage as Orlov, an Eastern European immigrant who rises from shelling out soup in a New York diner to running enough guns to keep half-a-dozen civil wars raging. The concept in and of itself is intriguing. As Ethan Hawke—who plays Jack Valentine, the federal agent tracking Orlov—so depressingly puts it, “No, 9 out of 10 war victims today are killed with assault rifles and small arms—like yours. Those nuclear weapons sit in their silos. Your AK-47, that’s the real weapon of mass destruction.” All the genocidal and deadly conflicts that tear the world apart day in and day out wouldn’t be possible if not for people like Orlov, but it’s a side of the world few people see or even think about.
If I just wanted to watch a movie about the distribution of Kalashnikovs after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’d watch the History Channel. Where Lord of War gets its real bite is from the character of Orlov, and the deadpan, unforgiving, and masochistic way that Cage plays him. Orlov does not make excuses for what he does. Of course, he says that if he didn’t trade arms, someone else would fill the market. But it doesn’t sound like an excuse. Coming from Cage, it sounds more like a simple assessment of the reality of the world. As he puts it, “They say, ‘Evil prevails when good men fail to act.’ What they ought to say is, ‘Evil prevails.’” Orlov is by no means a good man, but the tone set through the entire movie is not that Orlov’s individual actions can or do make the world a worse or better place, but that the world is a terrible place and Orlov is just along for the ride. The movie seeks to be honest with itself and the nature of the world, coloring this disheartening view with Orlov’s cynically humorous narrations.
In the movie, Orlov is pushed into positions where he has to sell guns to men whom he knows will use them to kill innocent women and children. In one scene, he sells a truckload of guns to a group of militants who turn right around and use them to wipe out a village of refugees. He, understandably, develops a self-hating and near-suicidal nature. But, try as he might, he seems to be “cursed” with invulnerability. When what he does becomes known, he loses his wife, his son, his brother, and his parents. But he himself always seems to emerge unscathed. Despite the best efforts of Valentine and even himself, Orlov just can’t stop doing what he does best. And this is how Orlov’s story is both something of a documentary and a drama. The pain and suffering he is forced to endure make up more than enough drama for any other movie, but his apparent invincibility speaks to the fact that no matter what we do, “Evil prevails.” It’s a depressing and honest view, the likes of which are rarely seen in movies these days—especially in a relatively mainstream movie like Lord of War. I would like to see more like it, but based on how Lord of War fared at the box office, I probably won’t.