By Tyler Dikun
Back before his meteoric plummet to Hollywood punch-line, Nicolas Cage actually had a string of good performances. In Leaving Las Vegas, Cage poured trauma and heartbreak into the role of Ben Sanderson, a suicidal alcoholic. His work in the action-thriller The Rock alongside Sean Connery was nothing short of heart-stopping.
While his choice of movies in the past decade leaves something to be desired (see CollegeHumor), the once A-list celebrity stunned in one of my personal favorite movies, Lord of War. Starring in a biographic based loosely on notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, Cage exemplified the extreme highs of gun running followed by the predictable downfall of selling one’s soul for profit.
Backed by an emerging Jared Leto, Hollywood mainliner Ethan Hawke and Bridget Moynahan of I-Robot fame, Cage fully showcases the life of an international arms dealer. The movie begins by taking its viewer through the life of a bullet from its conception in a Soviet munitions factory to its ultimate fate- moments before it is about to strike a helpless African child. As Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” plays in the background, the viewer is made to understand the inadvertent death and suffering arms dealing inflicts.
Yuri Orlov (Cage) has dreams for a better life, dreams that don’t involve working in his parents’ restaurant in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. His get-rich-quick scheme? Guns. Yuri sees the market for weapons as vital as the market for food and thus convinces his brother Vitaly (Leto) to join in his illegal arms-dealing business.
As the movie progresses through the 1980s, Yuri becomes rich, marries the girl of his dreams, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) and owns a multi-million dollar apartment in Manhattan. The eye-opening moment for Yuri and the viewer comes in the form of the fall of the Soviet Union. A question I never once asked was what happened to the millions of weapons the USSR stockpiled during the Cold War?
Before watching Lord of War it had never once occurred to me that weapons ranging from assault rifles to attack helicopters were easily swooped up in former Soviet Republics and resold to conflicts around the world.
Lord of War is teeming with a multitude of memorable scenes, but the most ironic comes when Yuri sits on the toppled statue of Vladimir Lenin at a Ukrainian military base. While using a calculator to count his profits, Yuri says, “I have a feeling it wasn’t exactly what Comrade Lenin had in mind when he advocated the redistribution of wealth.”
As Yuri’s business and bank account skyrockets he becomes the primary target of Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke). In one instance, Valentine handcuffs Yuri to a chair in the remote African plains for 24 hours in order to “buy someone an extra day.” The message is as striking as it is clear, while Yuri has never actually killed anyone, he has blood on his hands from the deaths of thousands, if not millions.
Lord of War truly examines the human side of arms-dealing. The film successfully captures what it means to profit off the backs of the dead and suffering. The real message of the movie is that at a certain point, where do we draw the line? Given the ability to make millions, would ordinary people choose to deal in death and destruction? Yuri could not understand the torment he was inadvertently causing until it directly affected him. Even then, he continues his work as a “necessary evil” because in Yuri’s own words, “they say evil prevails when good men fail to act, what they ought to say is… evil prevails.”
A good Nicolas Cage film is a rare find, therefore seize on the opportunity to see Lord of War if you have not already. It documents the spectacular and rather devilish life of an international criminal in the same ilk as Goodfellas and Blow. You will find yourself simultaneously cheering for Yuri to rise above his meager beginnings while also questioning the very foundations of war profiteering.
Lord of War will grab you with its outlandish characters, enrage you with its low-regard for human life and test your confidence in your own government. But by the end you will remind yourself, there are far worse ways to kill two hours, gun-running is perhaps the worst.