Nicolas Cage as a globe-trotting, under-the-counter arms dealer? It works better than anyone had a right to expect, and precisely because of the idea's seeming incongruity. Cage has a sheepish vulnerability that can make the most ostentatious action-figuring accessible remember his midsiege nausea fit in The Rock and that's just what the philosophically amped-up Lord of War needs to keep its gunrunning scenarios from teetering into the unintentionally absurd.
Left to the care of another actor, we might have trouble fully engaging with the rags-to-riches story of Yuri Orlov, a Ukranian-American hustler who seizes the fall of communism as an opportunity to make a killing on the international AK-47 market. As he scurries from eager buyer to eager buyer taking advantage of underattended munitions stockpiles and vanished accountability Yuri is living a particularly toxic version of the capitalist ideal.
Orlov quarterbacks all this amoral activity by explaining it to us as cynical first-person narration, a storytelling technique that worked like mad in Goodfellas and not so much anywhere else. But Cage is adept at talking us through a story (Adaptation), and that plus his inherent underdog-ism keeps the character's nihilistic posturing in check. Watching Cage's Orlov service coldblooded killers while amassing an obscene fortune, we know he's constantly aware he may be in over his head; the most routine exchanges thus crackle with danger and gallows humor.
In declaring flat-out that small arms are the real WMDs and that just about everybody is complicit in their epidemic dissemination Lord of War announces itself as a responsible piece of subversion. Writer/director Andrew Niccol (who penned The Truman Show and directed Gattaca) goes even further, showing Third World despots tsk-tsking the O.J. trial verdict but gloating over the outcome of the 2000 U.S. election. With the world's proudest democracy up for grabs, how can their own electoral shams ever again be termed illegitimate? The script even finds a way to mute the discomfiting realization that Orlov must have rubbed shoulders with Osama at some point or another. The explanation of why the two never did business is funny and believable, a narrative bunt that's one of the best of its kind.
That finesse, however, ended at the scoring stage. The movie's soundtrack is filled with hoary pop tunes ("Cocaine," "Money `That's What I Want`") chosen solely for their overt lyrical similarity to the on-screen doings. (There's also the third employment this year of Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" as a climactic hymn.) Deferred greatness is what happens when a movie so attuned to moral nuance remains tone-deaf to the idea of subtle subtextual suggestion.