By Pete Vonder Haar | October 10, 2008

There’s an obvious problem with including the word “lies” in the title of your movie, and you can probably figure out what it is. If you go into the theater with the expectation that everything presented onscreen is to be mistrusted, it’s going to be difficult for the filmmakers to spring any surprises. And when the movie in question is a by-the-numbers rehash of recent espionage flicks, as is the case with “Body of Lies,” Ridley Scott’s latest, the effect is doubly unsatisfactory.

There’s a whiff of the terribly familiar hanging over the movie. Reminiscent of “Syriana,” we find CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the Middle East trying to track down an Islamic cleric who’s engineered a series of deadly bombings across Europe. His handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), steers the operation from Langley. The two clash on most everything, especially Ferris’ insistence on working in concert with the head of Jordanian Intelligence, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong, who steals every scene possible from the two stars), whose sophisticated veneer belies what a dangerous ally he truly is. Hoffman keeps tabs on Ferris through sophisticated satellite thingamabobs, which recalls “Enemy of the State,” Eagle Eye,” and any other paranoid techno-thriller released in the last ten years.

Yet in spite of the movie’s high-tech veneer and its top-billed stars, “Body of Lies” is depressingly inert. There are the requisite torture/chase/torture scenes that are so de rigueur in today’s terrorist-laden suspense movies, as well as a half-assed attempt to tie Hoffman’s intransigence to American foreign policy as a whole, but there’s no sense of urgency. Ferris and Hoffman’s sparring lacks any real menace, with angry debates about field tactics broken up by jokes about Hoffman’s weight and Ferris’ love life. These guys are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with enemies who want to murder us, and they josh around like a couple of salesmen at a convention in Atlantic City.

And even though DiCaprio strains credibility as a seasoned field agent and Crowe appears to have done little more than gain his “Insider” weight back and perfected his mother’s Disapproving Over the Eyeglasses Glare, it’s hard to fault the two leads. No, if you want to blame anyone, blame Scott – who with each successive film seems to be hewing closer to brother Tony’s style – and screenwriter William Monahan, who has produced an incredulous and, at times, hilarious script.

Now, I realize we live in the post-Valerie Plame era and the government is free to endanger the lives of its cover operatives in order to satisfy personal vendettas, but I thought the operatives themselves might feel a greater sense of self-preservation. For example, the mere fact that Ferris is a white man bopping around Jordan automatically makes him conspicuous. So why don’t we exacerbate that by having him court a Muslim woman (Golshifteh Farahani). And hey, did it ever occur to the “best field operative in the CIA” that having a local romantic attachment might be exploited by his enemies?

All the same, I could’ve forgiven some earlier missteps if the ending had delivered. Sadly, the final confrontation between Ferris and Al-Saleem is straight out of 1980s action cinema. When the priest tells Ferris the cavalry isn’t coming, I half expected Mel Gibson and Danny Glover to bust in and start snapping necks. As it turns out, I wasn’t far off.

The depiction of international terrorism in the movies has come a long way since the likes of “Navy Seals,” but you wouldn’t know it watching “Body of Lies.”

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