The Best Movie You Never Saw: Lord of War

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at LORD OF WAR…

THE STORY: In the late-eighties-early-nineties, a low-level thug, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) becomes an infamous arms dealer, exploiting connections in the former Soviet Union and selling his wares to whomever has the cash.

THE PLAYERS: Directed and Written by Andrew Niccol. Starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Ian Holm, Bridget Moynahan and Ethan Hawke.

THE HISTORY: 2005 was one of the peak moments for Nicolas Cage. At the time, he was able to skillfully juggle commercial projects (such as the National Treasure movies) with more artistic ones, such as this and the same year’s The Weather Man, and Cage was on an amazing roll. Lord of War was a pet project of his, with him able to play against type as the cold-blooded, amoral Yuri Orlov (a composite character based on several arms dealers, including the now incarcerated Viktor Bout).

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, whose Gattaca is another unfairly obscure classic, Lord of War pretty much sunk like a stone at the U.S box office, opening behind the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Just Like Heaven and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, eking out only $24 million domestically, not a great result for a movie that cost $50 million. Luckily for the investors, Cage’s still powerful overseas draw put the film in the black, bringing the worldwide gross to $72 million. Critically, it was relatively well-received but around Oscar time it was totally ignored, and in the home video market it was sold as an action flick, despite not being that kind of movie at all.

Well, you know, you are talking about… the only character who is the lead of the movie is in Lord of War. For me that was really interesting to explore the darker side of human nature. And, in fact, an Akira Kurosawa movie that explained it just in the title — the more evil you are, the better you sleep. That just sort of was what I thought about almost in every scene of Lord of War. The problem with people who have a conscience is it slows them down. We all like to say, “How can you sleep at night?” But the thing is, if you have no conscience, you sleep like a baby. [Laughs] – Andrew Niccol – Film School Rejects Interview

WHY IT’S GREAT: Lord of War is an example of the type of movie Hollywood has all but given up on, the big-budget adult drama. Nowadays, given a star with a similar stature to Cage’s at the time, Lord of War might still get made, but for a fraction of the cost and not as lavishly. Despite the tough subject matter, Lord of War is a big movie. Beautifully shot, with innovative CGI used to enhance (but not dominate) the story, and big-stars in juicy roles, you can’t help but feel nostalgic for the era in which this was made. Sure, it was only seventeen years ago, but the biz has changed so much it might as well have been a lifetime ago.

Now, a financier would be bent on making Yuri “likable”. Take, for example, the more recent War Dogs, and the way director Todd Phillips had to constantly jam in scenes showing that the Miles Teller character had a conscience, keeping the focus away from where it should have been, on Jonah Hill’s more amoral (and realistic) thug gunrunner.

The fact is, arms dealers are bastards. They make money off murder, and Cage’s character is utterly unsympathetic, but, working at the peak of his ability he makes it work the same way a guy like Al Pacino did in Scarface, elevating this to the classic gangster movie pantheon (and what else is a gunrunner but a two-bit gangster). While the subplot revolving around his beauty-queen wife (Bridget Moynahan) feels a bit tacked-on to provide some heart, and Hawke – as an ATF agent – has to spend pretty much all of his screen time moralizing, this is a hard-core romp through and through.

“I’m kind of obsessed with Nic Cage. I just found out about /r/onetruegod too. He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours. If I could erase his bottom half bad movies, and only keep his top half movies, he would blow everyone else out of the water. He’s put a little too much water in his beer, but he is still one of the great actors of our time. And working with him was an absolute pleasure. In fact, one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done is the last scene in LORD OF WAR.” – Ethan Hawke – Reddit AMA

Cage seems to be having the time of his life embodying Yuri’s amorality, but to his credit he stops short of chewing any scenery. Another great performance comes from Jared Leto, as his junkie brother, who proves that discovering a conscience in this field is a deadly prospect (Leto gave the movie a shout out when I interviewed him recently). Everyone’s great in this, including “Oz’s” Eamonn Walker as a war lord based on Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and the late Ian Holm as a more humane gun runner.

BEST SCENE: I remember seeing Lord of War opening night at the Scotiabank Theater in Montreal, and the audience applauding wildly at the end of the opening credit sequence, which shows a bullet being made, packaged, and finally being shot into a child soldier. It’s strong stuff but it starts the movie off on an unforgettable note.

SEE IT: Lord of War is easy to see, be it on streaming services, or on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital.

PARTING SHOT: Visually striking, with many interesting shots juxtaposing Cage against old Soviet monuments or bullets, and running a lean 120 minutes, Lord of War is one of those movies I go back to every few years, getting something new out of it every time. Hopefully Cage will find his way back to this kind of material, as there aren’t many actors that could have pulled the movie off like he does here.

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