Has any other great director seemed as content to make merely good movies as Ridley Scott? Visionary at his best, workmanlike at his worst, Scott has a bad habit of making films whose handsomeness almost, but doesn't quite, hide their shortcomings. Like last year's American Gangster, Body Of Lies has elements of greatness in it but never quite performs the alchemy needed to convert them, settling instead for mere goodness. Still, it's not like the screens are so flooded with decent movies that we couldn't use another, particularly a timely, clear-eyed thriller about the Middle East and the role of the U.S. therein.
Screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) adapts a novel by journalist/novelist David Ignatius and the results play like a more comprehensible and explosion-filled Syriana. Body Of Lies opens with a terrorist incident in Manchester, shifts to Iraq, then expands to reveal a web of decisions and deceptions stretching from Baghdad to Langley, home base of a blunt, decisive senior C.I.A. agent played by a porked-out Russell Crowe. From afar, Crowe puts field agent Leonardo DiCaprio through his paces, making snap life-and-death decisions informed more by general foreign policy goals than the immediate situation. In DiCaprio he has an effective tool to sculpt the world, however bluntly. An early scene in which DiCaprio kills an informant rather than let him be captured illustrates his ability to make pitiless decisions, but that talent doesn't always keep his overactive conscience at bay. A transfer to Jordan, following the trail of terrorist mastermind Alon Abutbul, creates new complications as DiCaprio enters into an information-sharing partnership with Jordanian intelligence head Mark Strong and a friendship with a relocated Iranian nurse (popular Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, whose participation in the project has led to her being forbidden from leaving the country.) He finds both relationships increasingly informed by undercurrents of mistrust as the violence and intrigue mounts around him.
Apart from DiCaprio's uncharacteristically overheated acting, this is a film defined by smart turns (particularly Crowe's sly, Foghorn Leghorn-informed performance), clear storytelling, atmospheric location shooting, and a pointed look at Middle East turmoil that contrasts political theory with caught-in-the-crossfire fact. It's solid filmmaking that, bafflingly, leaves little to talk about on the way home. Scott keeps both the action scenes and the human drama at a polite distance and apart from a few moments—Crowe sardonically delivering orders while driving his kids to school, DiCaprio picking bone fragments of a dead friend out of his arm—there's little to take away apart from a vague sense that, as good as it is, it could have been better. For all the violence inspired by real-life turmoil, the film draws hardly any blood.