Let no one say that Lord of War lacks for auteurist aspiration. In the opening-title sequence, set to the strains of Buffalo Springfield’s hippie anthem “For What It’s Worth,” the camera takes the perspective of a bullet as it journeys from assembly line to rifle chamber to small boy’s forehead, this last impact dramatically discharging the final credit on the screen: “Written and directed by Andrew Niccol.” Screenwriter of The Truman Show, Niccol previously helmed Gattaca, which imagined a future apartheid between test-tube supermen and naturally conceived shmoes, and S1m0ne, a similarly flat-footed media satire about a frustrated director who whips up a starlet from CGI scratch. With his confused, distended latest, Niccol relocates from the desert of the real to the global killing fields, but as slick, flashy public-service announcements go, Lord of War is no Constant Gardener.
Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is the man with the gun over there, be it Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, or most other war zones of the given moment. As the striver child of Russian immigrants in mob-ruled Little Odessa, Yuri concludes from available evidence that weaponry is an insatiable market; he flexes connections at a local synagogue to make his first sale to an Israeli agent and taps his soused old uncle back in the just-collapsed Soviet Union to help him raid mother Russia’s stockpile—thus one-upping his sole apparent rival, a Cold War dinosaur played by Ian Holm. Now reckoning himself the world’s preeminent arms dealer, this rhapsodist of the Kalashnikov acquires his teenage wet dream (Bridget Moynahan) and eludes the relentless Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) at every turn, tramping from bedlam to bedlam with just a couple of suitcases and no apparent security detail, excepting the occasional assist from his cokehead little bro, Vitaly (Jared Leto).
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. Yuri will happily arrange an armored personnel carrier for psychotic self-proclaimed Liberian president Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker); its possible uses are none of the salesman’s business. In his conviction that humans are hard-wired to kill each other—and thus to buy his products—Orlov is the purest vessel of the Darwinian free market imaginable. (He politely overlooks the fact that most of the people firing and being fired upon by his guns are poor and black, lest it upset his notion of natural laws.) Niccol’s fatal error is in making the protagonist at once amoral and insipid, an admixture thickened by Cage’s loquacious yet stoned voice-over and Moynahan’s moist-eyed tremblings as the trophy wife. As our host drones on and on over cartoon-panel carnage, Lord of War resembles less ripped-from-the-headlines agitprop than an overgrown adolescent’s hermetic fantasia, and we never get out of his head.