Screens What price infamy?

Nicolas Cage's Lord of War wanted to do "something big" with his life

Yuri Orlov is a paragon - and parody - of American immigrant success. Born in the Ukraine to parents who feigned Jewishness in order to obtain exit visas, he sweated through childhood in the kitchen of the family restaurant in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Soon after going into business for himself, Yuri amasses a vast fortune, acquiring a gorgeous trophy wife (Fontaine), a posh Park Avenue apartment, and stature as a patron of the arts. "There are only two tragedies in life," he tells Jack Valentine, the Interpol agent who pursues him across continents and legal jurisdictions. "One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it."

Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) parlays his Ukrainian connections into a life of lucrative gun-running, leaving behind the family restaurant his first-generation immigrant parents opened in Brighton Beach, New Jersey, in Lord of War.

Writer-director Andrew Niccol (who wrote The Truman Show and directed Gattaca) lifted the quip from Lady Windermere's Fan, but there is no evidence that either Jack or Yuri knows its origins in Oscar Wilde. Nor is the viewer expected to recognize the line, thrown in merely to emphasize the irony that, though Yuri's source of wealth, gun-running, has been very, very good to him, it has also destroyed his family, endangered his health, and burdened his conscience, temporarily. He utters the witticism while sitting in jail.

War movies depend on weapons, but rarely do they acknowledge the munitions merchants who facilitate havoc. Lord of War, which announces that it is "based on actual events," uses the savagery of the last two decades of the 20th century as a backdrop to the story of a shrewd opportunist who boasts about supplying every army except the Salvation Army. When the Cold War implodes, Yuri proves especially adept at profiting from the vast stockpile of weapons that disappear as the Soviet Union disintegrates. Making frequent use of six passports and kin within the Ukrainian military, Yuri will sell any gun to anyone as long as the price is right; the only reason he refrains from doing business with Osama bin Laden is that, "Back then he was always bouncing checks." Lord of War bounces from New York to Berlin, Beirut, Colombia, Bolivia, Ukraine, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as it tries to cobble a coherent fable out of contemporary horror - psychopathic despots, child soldiers, the cocaine trade, the AIDS pandemic.

Lord of War

Writ. & dir. Andrew Niccol; feat. Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ian Holm, Eamonn Walker, Ethan Hawke (R)

Though Yuri oozes charm, he is an avaricious monster who shares the amoral nonchalance of the NRA. His guns - and grenades, tanks, and missiles - don't kill people; if the people to whom he sells them kill people, the salesman rejects responsibility. "Selling guns is like selling vacuum cleaners," Yuri says, with clean hands and sound slumber. He refuses to pull the trigger even when his arch-rival (Holm) is delivered to him for execution, though he is pleased when someone else performs the dirty work.

Lord of War is a vampire movie, the story of a man who feeds on the blood of thousands, but the horror is intensified by the jaunty, flippant voice that tells its own tale. "I'd always wanted to do something big with my life," says Yuri, in scant explanation for how he jumps from spooning borscht in Brighton Beach to dispensing kalashnikovs in Monrovia. However, despite the film's cheeky, cynical narrator, Wilde is less of a precedent than Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg's sprightly account of another genial young scoundrel. Like Leonardo DiCaprio's Frank Abagnale, who is tailed throughout his film by Tom Hanks' tenacious FBI agent, Nicolas Cage's Yuri Orlov delights in eluding Ethan Hawke's Jack Valentine. Yet it is easier to be droll about kiting checks and fooling flight attendants than expediting massacres. Lord of War evokes a world too like our own, in which villains are caught but never brought to justice, in which those who lack a soul to sell make do with peddling guns.

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