The best movie you’ve never seen: Lord of War

Welcome to The best movie you have NEVER seena column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction over the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either ahead of its time and/or has aged like fine wine.

This week we will be looking at LORD OF WAR…

THE STORY: In the late eighties-early nineties, low-level thug Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) becomes a notorious arms dealer who exploits connections in the former Soviet Union and sells his wares to whoever has the money.

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

THE STORY: 2005 was one of the high points for Nicolas Cage. At that time, he was able to skillfully juggle commercial projects (such as National treasure film) with more artistic ones, like this and the same year The weathermanand Cage was on a great roll. warlord was his pet project, where he could play against type like the cold-blooded, amoral Yuri Orlov (a composite character based on several arms dealers, including the now-imprisoned Viktor Bout).

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, whose Gattaca is another unfairly obscure classic, warlord pretty much sunk like a rock at the US box office and opened behind the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Just like Heaven and That Exorcism by Emily Rose, making only $24 million domestically, not a great result for a $50 million film. Fortunately for investors, Cage’s still-strong overseas draw put the film in the black, bringing its 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 movie, despite the fact that it wasn’t that kind of movie at all.

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

WHY IT’S GREAT: warlord is an example of the type of film Hollywood has all but given up on, the big-budget coming-of-age drama. Today, given a star of similar stature to Cage’s at the time, warlord can still be made but for a fraction of the price and not as lavishly. Despite the difficult subject, warlord is a great 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 willing to make Yuri “friendly”. Take the newer one for example Dogs of warand the way director Todd Phillips had to constantly jam in scenes that showed the Miles Teller character had a conscience that kept 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’re making money off of murder, and Cage’s character is completely unsympathetic, but when he’s working at the top of his skills, he makes it work like a guy like Al Pacino did in Scarf, elevating this to the classic gangster movie pantheon (and what else is a gunrunner than a two-bit gangster). While the subplot involving his beauty-queen wife (Bridget Moynahan) feels a bit too stilted to provide any heart, and Hawke—as an ATF agent—must spend most 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 to actually do something new with acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession of naturalism to a sort of presentation style which I imagine was popular with the old troubadours. If I could delete his bad films in the lower half and keep only his films in the upper half, he would blow everyone else out of the water. He has put a little too much water in his beer, but he’s still one of the great actors of our time. And it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. In fact, one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done is the last one scene in LORD OF WAR.” – Ethan Hawke – Reddit AMA

Cage seems to be having the time of his life embodying Yuri’s immorality, 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 film a shout out when I interviewed him recently). Everyone is good in this, including “Oz’s” Eamonn Walker as a warlord based on Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and the late Ian Holm as a more humane gun runner.

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

SEE IT: warlord is easy to watch, whether on streaming services or on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital.

SHOT: Visually striking, with many interesting images juxtaposing Cage with old Soviet monuments or spheres, and running 120 minutes, warlord is one of those movies that I go back to every few years and get something new out of it every time. Hopefully Cage finds his way back to this kind of material, as there aren’t many actors who could have pulled off the film the way he does here.

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