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Originally published September 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 16, 2005 at 1:02 PM

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Movie review

"Lord of War": Revealing, but as blunt as they come

As message films go, "Lord of War" is as blunt as they come. From an opening salvo in which we follow the path of a bullet from its factory...

Special to The Seattle Times

As message films go, "Lord of War" is as blunt as they come.

From an opening salvo in which we follow the path of a bullet from its factory origins to a final destination piercing the forehead of an African soldier — all set against Buffalo Springfield's classic anti-violence song "For What It's Worth" — the film registers zero on the subtlety meter.

But it also reveals something about the real world few of us know. There are individuals, freelance weapons dealers, who reap enormous profits arming renegade governments, drug cartels, bloodthirsty dictators and genocidal armies. "Lord of War" is a thinly disguised representation of writer-director Andrew Niccol's research into contemporary gunrunning.

Nicolas Cage is enormously, paradoxically likable as a genuine monster, Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian emigrant from New York City's Little Odessa neighborhood. (The Orlov family pretended to be Jewish to speed emigration to the U.S., a lesson not lost on Yuri when he later acquires passports from different countries to sell weapons globally.)

Yuri's vision of the American Dream includes vast wealth and winning the hand of a local beauty, Ava (Bridget Moynahan). He tries including his ne'er-do-well brother, Vitali (Jared Leto), in his plans to sell arms around the world. But it isn't long before Vitali's weakness for drugs, and possibly a stricken conscience, make him a liability.

Through sheer determination, Yuri develops an international clientele, many in West Africa (Eamonn Walker is particularly good playing a Liberian warlord causing great misery), while acquiring all manner of arms, including stockpiles of stolen Soviet weapons.

In the process, he repeatedly crushes business for an older competitor (Ian Holm) and outmaneuvers a determined Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke).

Movie review 3 stars

"Lord of War," with Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Ian Holm, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker and Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. 122 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language. Several theaters.

Yuri also develops a pathological ability to separate his business from responsibility for the deaths it causes. "It's not our fight," he tells Vitali. "We didn't pull the trigger."

Much of Yuri's story runs parallel to actual events since 1990 and makes him more compelling as an emblem rather than a fully realized character. Niccol, the New Zealand-born filmmaker who wrote "The Truman Show," is mostly interested in arriving at a crucial question: At what point does a man like Yuri lose his soul?

Produced inexpensively by Hollywood standards, "Lord of War" makes great use of dazzling locations — captured with feverish intensity by cinematographer Amir Mokri ("The Joy Luck Club") — and actual weapons (including 100 T-72 Soviet tanks) Niccol borrowed from real-life, black-market arms dealers.

There's a twist toward the end of the film, emerging in dialogue between Yuri and Hawke's character, that Niccol says is based on an actual incident. (No spoiler here.) It makes one wonder what chance we have in a world where the line between right and wrong disappears easily.

Tom Keogh:

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