Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 10, 2019)
As a director, Andrew Niccol’s first two efforts – 1997’s Gattaca and S1mone - fell under the sci-fi banner. They also showed a severe drop in quality from one to another, as the mediocre S1mone offered a significant disappointment after the well-executed Gattaca.
2005’s Lord of War became Niccol’s next work, one that left behind the sci-fi of its predecessors for a view of the “real world”. I also hoped it’d right the ship and push Niccol back toward the high quality of Gattaca, but that failed to occur.
As a young man, Ukrainian immigrant Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) learns that he boasts a skill for sales – the sales of illegal weapons, in particular. In the 1980s, he begins to ply his illicit trade in New York’s “Little Odessa” and his talents eventually lead him all around the world stage, as along with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), he develops into an international arms dealer.
Unsurprisingly, Yuri’s work makes him a target for law enforcement, and Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) pursues him. While Yuri attempts to evade capture, he also deals with the moral ramifications of his career choice.
With Gattaca, Niccol demonstrated a Kubrick influence, as the film’s story and themes reflected that legend’s work. However, the movie never felt like more than a general nod in Kubrick’s direction, so Niccol made the tale his own.
With War, Niccol opts for an obvious Scorsese vibe, one that I wish I could claim felt subtle. However, Niccol wears Marty on his sleeve – and his pants, and his belt, and his shoes, as the film brings a blatant attempt to emulate Scorsese.
This doesn’t work. Niccol manages to emulate aspects of Scorsese’s style, but he lacks the same cinematic skill and self-confidence.
As such, War feels like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. You can still see a semblance of the source but it feels like a faint imitation. Niccol tries to out-Marty Marty, and he fails miserably.
At its heart, War wants to bring a wild, cynical look at the dark side of the Military-Industrial Complex, but Niccol seems too earnest to really dig his fangs into the material. As much as he shoots for a darkly comedic vibe, the end result comes across as oddly limp and toothless.
Niccol’s script also digresses too much, especially as we follow Yuri’s romance with Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). This subplot feels contrived and borderline useless, as our view of Yuri’s home life does little more than distract from the main narrative.
Indeed, the long sequence in which Yuri romances Ava feels strangely shoehorned into the rest of the film. The Ava story serves a minor purpose in that it shows Yuri’s willingness to live beyond his means but that end could’ve been served in more logical, less distracting ways.
In general, War lacks a particularly coherent narrative. While the synopsis I provide above depicts a cat and mouse tale, that side of the film fills less of the movie than one might expect.
Niccol can never decide where he wants to focus. Does he want to depict Yuri’s adventures as a gun-runner, or his love affair/family life, or his attempts to evade capture?
All and none, really, as the movie’s inconsistent emphasis creates a discordant narrative progression more than anything else. Without real plot thrust, the film tends to wander and meander.
Niccol does recruit a solid cast. With Cage and Leto, we get two Academy Award winners, and both Hawke and Ian Holm received Oscar nominations.
Alas, none of the performers can elevate the tepid material. Cage restrains himself and avoids his hammier excesses, but he doesn’t add much life to his thin role.
I also find it tough to swallow Cage due to his age – or how old he looked in 2005. Oddly, the movie wants us to accept 41-year-old Cage as a decent amount younger than 34-year-old Moynahan, and that leap proves impossible to make.
It also seems difficult to accept Cage and Leto as brothers, mainly because Cage appears so much older than Leto. In reality, Cage is only seven years senior to Leto, but because Nic aged somewhat poorly and Jared always looked much younger than his actual age, their seven years difference seems more like 15.
Yuri really feels like a role that should’ve been played by a younger actor, as we get the feeling he should be in his twenties during the movie’s first act. Moynahan seems to be the right age, and Leto’s probably too old as well, but his Dorian Gray-style refusal to get old allows us to buy him as a guy in his early twenties.
Cage just doesn’t fit, though, and this becomes a distraction. His weathered visage doesn’t match with his co-stars and turns into a point of confusion.
Objections to actors’ ages aside, War doesn’t work. The movie includes the basics that should allow it to become a cynical, vivid dark comedy, but the final product lacks the venom and coherence it needs.