After yesterday’s river of Rushton, we have a hemorrhage of Hall! Turning his jaundiced eye – see how it glimmers in the light, now weary with cynicism, now engorged with passion – upon Lord of War, he finds himself surprised (elated even?) as he falls under the spell of Cage! And so:
I’m in something of an awkward position here. As we all know, Earth is broadcasting all of our radio and television out into space and if intelligence ever receives these signals and puts humanity on trial for our crimes and excesses, Nicholas Cage will be Exhibit A. Unless, of course, he’s actually been sent an advance scout. And yet Lord of War is actually one of my favourite films.
Lord of War was written and directed by Andrew Niccol. He’s more notable as the man behind Gattaca, another good film which shared competent writing and a fairly heavy-handed message.
As readers of this blog are all aware, Cage is not really a go-to man for subtlety, and yet in this film he gives a marvelously understated performance as Yuri Orlov, entrepreneurial arms-dealer. Yuri is a shockingly amoral man. He sells weapons to warlords and terrorists. He continues with his career even after becoming rich beyond his wildest dreams simply because ‘he’s good at it’. He cheats on his wife repeatedly and continually without any sign of remorse. You’d think it would be hard to empathise for such a character, but the quality of the writing and – I still can’t quite believe I’m saying this – Cage’s performance turns us into his conspirators. He is so charming that the various seduction scenes, usually amongst the most terrifying and surreal moments in any Cage film, are actually believable. That said there’s still something itchy about watching Cage romance someone, as though some primal urge is warning us to expel him from the gene pool.
In contrast to most of his performances, in which Cage marshals an array of facial tics and Kubrick stares, Orlov’s face is a subtle mask of cold eyes and frown lines. The only real exceptions are the moments when it cracks into a smile which is 100% used car salesman. Equally, there’s little of the restless arm syndrome or Shatneresque misplaced emphases best witnessed in Vampire’s Kiss – Orlov is conservative in expression, movement and action. It’s interesting to see Cage, who as we know throws himself entirely into his performances, take on such a restrained character. I did notice, however, that in the drug trips and the throes of ecstasy Niccol had the good sense to have Cage’s face in shadow or distorted behind glass. You can’t help but feel that the director knew exactly what Nic Cage is and what he is capable of in both the best and worst possible way.
His counterpoint is Agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke). Valentine really is a classic hero – just say his name out loud and you’ll know. His morality is unimpeachable. The ends never justify the means. It’s wonderful to watch the film from the opposite perspective, as it were, where the smug amoral bastard is our protagonist and the just hero our antagonist.
There are some flaws, of course. There’s a subplot about Yuri’s brother (Jared Leto) struggling with his guilt over the business which I didn’t care for. Truth be told I was unsure if it was just badly written or if Jared Leto, for whom saucer-like eyes are a substitute for subtlety and emotion, simply weren’t up to it. There’s a similar plot with Yuri’s trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan) that was similarly unmoving, though these two plotlines culminate in the rather excellent ending. I’ve been pretty heavy on the spoilers, but I won’t reveal it; it’s a good one, managing to both reinforce and subvert the message of the film.
Ultimately the whole film rests on Cage’s shoulders and in spite of his moral bankruptcy (even I’m not sure if I’m talking about cage or Orlov here) we can’t help but root for him. Somehow, he manages to keep his inner insanity locked away. It only surfaces briefly when he takes cocaine (the drug of choice for any Nic Cage character), and even then with far more reserve than the terrible, projectile madness of his performances in the Wicker Man or Bad Lieutenant.
So I’ve tackled what is easily the best Nic Cage film I’ve seen. Now I think it’s time I took on one of the worst. Bring on Con Air.