Nicolas Cage's Yuri Orlov is an opportunist and a bastard. He sells guns to evil men knowing that, as soon as he gets his money, the guns will be used against innocent people. You never understand Orlov, and you certainly never identify with him, but it's not merely because Yuri Orlov is a bad person. Bad people, historically, have made some of the most riveting characters.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez showed us facets of dictators who betray sparks of compassion, and won a Nobel Prize for it. Schindler's List showed more than a few morally conflicted Nazis; Hotel Rwanda showed the same thing in certain Hutu perpetrators of genocide. In Three Kings -- a film very similar in tone and subject to Lord of War -- as an Iraqi intelligence officer is electrocuting a soldier and pouring motor oil down his throat, we learn about the Iraqi's dead daughter, his broken family and how he was taught to torture people by the CIA. Though we deplore his actions, we recognize his traits as human.
That doesn't, by any means, imply that bad guys are automatically interesting. Lord of War roundly destroys that notion. Niccol has given us a film full of nothing but bad guys, none of them remotely compelling. Orlov never dwells much on any one conflict in any one war zone. He skips here and there, connecting with no one, mostly because Niccol wants to sermonize in broad strokes about a lot of different issues. Orlov's personal life is stupid and perfunctory and only serves to set up the film's conclusion. Whatever acting takes place is buried under the continual march of arms. Maybe there's a message in that, but it doesn't feel like there is.
True, this story has never really been told -- and it desperately needed telling -- but the logic of making this kind of film escapes me. What's the point, after all, of making a movie if all you want to talk about are the processes and vagaries of the arms trade? That's what documentaries are for. But Niccol's film won't achieve its goal of education either, because it's fiction, and thus doesn't carry the import of a documentary. It's a failure all around.
The opening scene perfectly illustrates this misplaced focus: a bullet passes along assembly lines and beltways into a store house, then is picked up by arms dealers, intermediaries and guerilla fighters, before being placed in the clip of an AK-47 and, ultimately, lodging in the brain of a young child. It's five minutes of bullet-cam realism -- the entire gun-running process, meticulously recreated from manufacture to application. There's a brief red splat at the end, before the scene cuts. That was a human life ending, and Niccol's camera barely noticed.