I’ve never really decided what I think of Nicolas Cage. One of my all-time favorite underrated movies from the 1980s is Racing With the Moon, and that inclined me very much in favor of Sean Penn and Cage (well, and Elizabeth McGovern, who was quite the babe, though she hasn’t had nearly as prominent a career as those two). Since then, Penn has been consistently excellent in just about everything I’ve seen him in. Cage is a puzzler though.
So many of his movies are in genres (e.g., mindless action films) in which I have little interest that I actually haven’t seen the vast majority of his work. When I have seen him, I’m struck by how he generally has a more magnetic screen presence than the vast majority of actors, yet here and there he’s prone to a kind of corny overacting when he has to express certain emotions. It’s like he’s simultaneously an unusually interesting actor and a poor one.
Due to his career going in the direction it has, and his mixed performances when I have seen him, I suppose I’ve gradually ceased thinking of him as one of my favorite actors. Yet there’s no denying he’s impressed me multiple times, not just in Racing With the Moon. For example, I thought he was mostly very good (again, with the exception of a couple of emotional scenes) in Birdy, and I thought he was excellent in Adaptation.
Anyway, Cage is very much at the center of Lord of War. He’s the protagonist, he’s the narrator, and he’s present in virtually every scene. There are no subplots that get more than a smidgen of time that do not directly involve him. It’s two hours of almost wall-to-wall Cage.
And he’s mostly quite good. His character and the movie held my interest reasonably well from start to finish. There are still moments, though, where his sardonic character delivers hokey lines in ways that make me cringe a little. Maybe it’s just the writing, but it seems like there’s something off in how he tries to “sell it,” something about his tone of voice, body language, facial expression, whatever, where you occasionally get a glimpse of a kind of amateurish side of him.
Cage plays a shady arms dealer who sells weapons all over the world to any dictators, rebel groups, or whoever will pay reliably (which he says lets out Bin Laden, who has a problem with “bouncing checks”). He specializes in getting around arms embargoes, whether through blatantly illegal smuggling, or by finding loopholes in gray areas where what he’s doing is arguably legal. The bulk of his deals seem to be in Africa, as that is where there is the most chaos and the most people killing each other.
The movie is loosely based on a certain post-Soviet Russian arms dealer, incorporating events that happened with other arms dealers as well. There are also what I read later are wholly fictitious elements, like the depiction of Interpol as a kind of international FBI, with a Javert-like agent obsessed with bringing down Cage, chasing him from country to country, so scrupulously honest that he won’t bend the rules even when doing so would help him nab this guy he thinks is responsible for the deaths of a huge number of people.
For Lord of War, the arms dealer is made an American, though born of parents who emigrated from the Ukraine by pretending to be Jews, and still with some relatives and contacts back in that part of the world. He mostly works alone, though for a time his brother is a sort of assistant to him, until the brother can’t hack it anymore and gets strung out on drugs. He picks himself up a trophy wife once he has enough money to afford one—a model from his neighborhood that he has long admired from afar—and soon has a little boy. His most harrowing gun running dealings are with the scary, homicidal maniac president of Liberia Andre Baptiste (closely based on real life scary, homicidal maniac president of Liberia Charles Taylor), and his scary, homicidal maniac son.
Reviews describe this film as a black comedy, a satire, Fargo-like, etc., and while I agree there are certain elements of that (e.g., his father can’t shake the habit of pretending to be Jewish, since for one thing he likes the hat; Cage’s narration is world weary and ironic), it’s about 95% serious as far as I’m concerned, and hits its points pretty hard.
There are scenes that could go either way. One of the most startling moments in the film is when Baptiste is examining a gun he’s considering buying, and to test it he casually murders one of his guards that happens to be standing nearby. It’s the sort of bizarre, outrageous behavior that you might see in a Monty Python sketch, so I can imagine it eliciting nervous chuckles. But in the real world, there are people who do things like that, especially people at the top. It’s less common that they would do it with their own hands rather than have someone else do the dirty work for them, but not unheard of in the case of someone like Baptiste/Taylor.
So you can take it as satirical I suppose, but I’m more inclined to react to it as showing some of the ugliness that happens in real life.
As it gets deeper into the story, the movie tends to more explicitly condemn what we’re seeing. The Interpol agent’s denunciations of Cage are the clearest examples of this, though the trophy wife expresses some moral outrage, and there are lines in Cage’s narration that similarly speak the message of the film.
My guess is that for a lot of people these elements are the weakest part of the film, because they may seem incongruous with what comes before. Here’s this hip, ironic, just slightly quirky look at a bizarre, sensational area of life, and all of a sudden it decides to get preachy.
For me though, these elements improve the film. I’m glad it didn’t stray further into insufferably cool Tarantino territory and stay there. I’m glad it has something to say and says it, without holding back for fear of being seen as didactic. As I noted, I didn’t experience this film as being as tongue-in-cheek as I take it many people have, but even if it is to a certain degree, I appreciated it taking its tongue out of its cheek when it did.
Indeed, I even think in a sense the earlier tone “earned” it the right to be a little preachy later, like a comedy that’s able to successfully pull off a more serious, meaningful ending (e.g., Bheja Fry, Gretchen). I feel like it’s saying, “We’ve had a little fun here, tried to make this entertaining for you, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is some really serious shit we’re talking about that you need to know about and need to be angry about,” and I respect that.
The central character is not completely unsympathetic. There’s no doubt he’s perpetrating evil, but he doesn’t come across as some kind of heartless psychopath.
He actually reminds me a lot of people I have known in real life. They certainly aren’t operating at anything close to his level, but in their own way they’re adding negative energy to the world, and rationalizing it as best they can. Many, many times I’ve heard:
Defense #1: “This is just what you have to do to make money, to succeed in this world. You have to approach the business part of your life amorally, and just do what works. With your family and in your personal life, that’s when the moral stuff comes into play, that’s when you can let your human side out and try to do good and such, but not when money’s involved or you’ll always be poor.”
Defense #2: “If I didn’t do it, someone else would.”
Defense #3: “There are people doing a lot worse things than me, responsible for a lot more suffering and death. Why don’t you criticize them?”
The defenses are feeble, but the point is they’re commonplace, so the fact that Cage falls back on all of these makes him seem very human, with very human flaws, rather than like some inexplicable monster. The very fact that he needs to rationalize what he’s doing indicates that he hasn’t been able to fully compartmentalize his life, fully shut down his moral self when it would be convenient to do so.
He’s troubled, despite his glib narration. The verbal style isn’t insultingly flippant, or indicative of an amoral person; it’s a pose, and one that’s not very hard to see through.
(Not that any of this should be the slightest consolation to those who are dead or missing limbs because of his career choice.)
At the end, in a nicely executed twist (though the timing is ridiculously unrealistic), Cage is finally captured by the Interpol agent, but calmly explains to him that the American government will see to his release, since they need people like him as intermediaries to do their dirty work when they need to maintain plausible deniability. (The film notes at the end that although we’ve been focused on this one individual, the five biggest arms dealers in the world are the five nations of the U.N. Security Council.)
What’s striking, and admirable, is that the film doesn’t present this as Cage’s moment of triumph. He says what he says without a hint of gloating. By this point he’s lost all the people he’s ever cared about, his ability to hide from himself the moral ramifications of what he does has lessened considerably, and insofar as he’s able to continue in his line of work it’ll be with a grim self-loathing. He didn’t win by escaping the clutches of Interpol; he’s in Hell whether he’s in prison or not and he knows it.
There’s actually one other moment in the movie that struck me, because again it parallels so closely what I’ve heard in real life from people trying to defend the sleazy ways they make money.
I have a friend who says that one of the reasons he remains in a very ruthless business where he has to suppress a lot of his humanity—besides the fact that he’s making a killing—is that it came along when he was feeling some self-doubt, wondering if he could still be a success after a couple things he tried didn’t work out all that well, and it made him feel like a winner again. It was a challenge to get as good as he has at it, but he met the challenge, and now he spends his time every day competing and winning, achieving the goals he sets out to achieve, and it’s hard to walk away from that.
Cage makes almost that exact point late in the movie. He notes that by now the appeal is not the money, the material things, the trophy wife, etc. What is it then? “I’m good at it!” he declares.
That’s what it is, an ego thing. It’s sort of the opposite of sour grapes. Instead of talking down something you haven’t been able to get, you resist any inclination to talk down something you have been able to get. He’s excelled at this. He sees himself as the best or one of the best in the world at this line of work. All the more reason to rationalize sticking with it.
A winning performance by Cage, and a solid movie overall. Lord of War gives you plenty to think about.