Trailers often dumb down a movie so that it can be sold in 60 seconds. In the case of Lord of War (rated R for strong violence, drug use, language, and sexuality), the trailers promise something the film never delivers. What appears to be a biting look at gun culture and global violence has little more to offer than this: Arms dealers are sleazy and bad, and-get this-the United States is worse.
Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlav, the son of Russian immigrants in New York's Little Odessa. Yuri grew up surrounded by violence, and one day it hits him: People need food, people need shelter, people need guns (and ammo, of course). The seedy doors of capitalism swing open, and soon Yuri is at the top of his trade, an arms dealer supplying weaponry to dictators, guerrillas, and criminals around the globe.
Yuri has a brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto), a sometimes partner who suffers from aimlessness and an addiction to cocaine. Yuri has a childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who becomes his wife once he's rich enough to buy her. And he has a nemesis, Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), always just a step or two behind Yuri's latest scam.
Neither Yuri nor any of these supporting characters even begin to register as real people. Writer and director Andrew Niccol, often full of intriguing ideas (as in Gattaca and The Truman Show), here falters. He regularly gives his characters patronizingly clever/cynical dialogue ("I've done business with every army but the Salvation Army") and places them in absurd settings (Yuri sitting on a prostrate statue of Lenin punching numbers on a calculator after the fall of the Soviet Union), undercutting any sense of realism in the story. Meanwhile, the film is too pedestrian to register as a black comedy or satire.
Without much in the way of narrative support, Lord of War concludes with an epilogue suggesting that Yuri's thriving business is small potatoes compared to the arms supplied by the U.S. government. It's as if Mr. Niccol realized that he hadn't said much of anything in his film, and was grasping to give Lord of War a reason to exist.