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Running guns all over the world


Despite the apathy of the wealthy nations, including the United States, and the sporadic attention of the news media, it apparently takes the film industry to recognize the deplorable suffering of millions of people in Africa.

A number of recent movies, including such varied titles as Tears of the Sun, Beyond Borders, Hotel Rwanda, and The Constant Gardener, suggest that whatever its motives, even Hollywood, that much maligned entity, attempts to comprehend and publicize the contemporary calamities of starvation, disease, and genocide that afflict the continent.

Now Lord of War tells yet another story of that ongoing tragedy, this time in effect from the point of view of the bad guys.

Nicolas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, who emigrated as a child from Ukraine with his parents, and like many immigrants, dreams of greater possibilities than their restaurant in Brooklyn. His dream leads him into arms dealing, a growth industry that allows him to start small, as they say, peddling Uzis to local gangsters, and gradually expand into international commerce on a grand scale. He eventually amasses a fortune by wheeling and dealing in everything from submachine guns and hand grenades to heavy artillery and armored personnel carriers.

In a practically continuous voice-over, Cage narrates the entire film, recounting the history of his professional and personal ascent, which the various scenes and sequences illustrate in lively detail, and offering a series of pithy comments and useful apothegms about the arms trade. Much of his commentary underlines the strange ironies and even comic hypocrisies of his business and much of it, delivered in his characteristic breathy, nasal whine, is incongruously funny.

Assisted by his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), as he progresses in his profession, Yuri takes advantage of the apparently endless opportunities for running guns to a variety of customers, most of whom operate in some dangerous arena outside the law. He sells weapons to insurgents, rebels, and bandits in developing nations, to unstable and illegal governments, mostly to vicious and unprincipled thugs who of course use them to slaughter their enemies and maintain their power. Like an oil baron, Yuri profits most when his territory undergoes the familiar difficulties of chaos and bloodshed, which always drive up the demand for his product and consequently, the price he can charge.

As Yuri travels the globe, buying and selling his goods, he shows us just how difficult situations and violent political transformations improve his business. He explodes into joy, for example, when he hears the news of the collapse of the Soviet Union --- he knows the historic event means that huge quantities of military weaponry, including tanks and artillery, will be available for sale, legally or otherwise, and that dozens of former people's republics, emerging nations, and political groups will require arms to take control of their governments and populations.

The longest and most important sequences in the movie show Yuri's frequent and profitable dealings with some really bad people in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the major political gestures mostly involve assassination and massacre and the soldiers routinely practice rape and mutilation. Although he understands his complicity in these acts, like any criminal Yuri rationalizes them with the usual excuses about simply filling a need; more important, he also instructs the Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) pursuing him throughout the movie that he performs an important service, selling weapons illegally where the United States, the largest dealer in the world, cannot.

His weak voice and lugubrious countenance notwithstanding, for a change Nicolas Cage delivers a generally acceptable performance, even if everything he does remains on one emotional level and lacks a good deal in the way of conviction. He pretty much looks and acts the same whether about to be shot by a scary African warlord or about to be made into a Cage sandwich by two beautiful women provided by the same warlord.

Aside from its compelling and even entertaining glimpse of the realities of international arms dealing and despite its heavy spoken narrative, Lord of War works best in some terrific images, some of them as funny as they are authentic.

The picture best summarizes its moral vision in a brilliant opening sequence showing a single rifle bullet moving from manufacture through shipping to placement in a clip to its firing, when the camera follows it into the forehead of an African child soldier: That's the real meaning of the movie and the racket it exposes.

Lord of War (R), written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is playing at Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Geneseo Theatres, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown USA