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By Pete Vonder Haar | September 18, 2005

With another summer movie season mercifully coming to a close, studios have started trotting out movies dealing with subject matter more weighty than magical Volkswagens and superheroes that can spontaneously combust. For example, we’ve already had “The Constant Gardener,” John Le Carré’s diatribe against the global pharmacy trade, and now comes “Lord of War,” writer/director Andrew Niccol’s (“Gattaca,” “The Truman Show”) darkly comic look at the arms industry.

Our guide on this global tour of carnage is Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), who emigrated with his family from the Ukraine, settling in New York City’s Little Odessa neighborhood. Here, as an aimless young man, he discovers the profit potential in supplying those who wish to commit violence with the means to do so. Together with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), Yuri spends the 1980s working his way up the arms dealer ladder to become, in his words, the world’s “leading merchant of death.”

Cage may have finally found a role to make audiences forget The Family Man. And National Treasure. And…well, you get the idea. Yuri is unashamedly all about the profit. It doesn’t matter if he’s selling to the Palestinians or the Israelis, the East Germans or the West Germans. Everybody needs guns, and Yuri’s the man to get them. He’s also deliberately amoral: it isn’t as if he doesn’t know what the weapons he sells are doing, he simply doesn’t care.

Certainly there are those who try to wake Yuri up to the damage he does. Vitaly, when he isn’t spending yet another stint in rehab, is distinctly uncomfortable with the moral ramifications. And dogged Interpol officer Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), on those rare occasions when he does catch up with Yuri (even if he never finds anything to pin on him), attempts to acquaint him with the damage he’s doing. It’s to no avail, for – as Yuri reasons – if he quits the game, someone else will simply step in and take his place.

We follow Yuri’s career through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, when the end of the Cold War opens up superpower arsenals rendered unnecessary by the cessation of hostilities, as well as entirely new arenas in which to ply his trade. Meanwhile, his wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan) is starting to finally question how Yuri actually earns a living. With Valentine still hot on his trail, the stage would appear to be set for some kind of boffo confrontation and, perhaps, a happy ending.

You’d think that.

“Lord of War” is a refreshingly cynical look at the illegal arms trade. Unlike The Constant Gardener, it doesn’t beat us over the head with how evil these people are. True, the character of Valentine can get a little annoying with his self-righteous screeds, and the movie works best when it sticks with the morally flexible Yuri, but Niccol understands that black comedy works best when it makes us laugh at the same time it’s making us wince. From the incredible opening credits sequence to the sadly realistic conclusion, “Lord of War” is an arresting and disturbing piece of work that gets its message across without coming off as overly preachy.

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