Save for occasional genre items like George Romero's Land Of The Dead, which sneaks political allegory into the requisite mayhem, it's become so rare for a big-budget film to tackle the issues of the day directly that one that does is like a splash of cold water. Told through the eyes of a soulless gun-runner, Andrew Niccol's bracing Lord Of War looks at the nuts-and-bolts business of contemporary warfare from the supply side, and comes to some disquieting conclusions about whose hands are really dirty. Niccol sometimes operates in broad strokes—his previous features as a writer-director (Simone and Gattaca) and screenwriter (The Truman Show) reveal a knack for high-minded high-concept—but his bluntness seems entirely appropriate here, the natural outcome of having a strong, clear, passionate vision. From the inspired opening credits, which follows a bullet from its creation to its delivery to its final resting place in the skull of an underaged warrior, Lord Of War charges bravely and relentlessly into volatile territory, and it's hard to leave unscarred by the experience.
A freewheeling political entertainment on par with Three Kings, the film nestles inside the head of a weapons dealer whose moral equivocations are the only form of first-rate salesmanship he saves for himself. Raised among Ukrainian immigrants in Little Odessa, Nicolas Cage forgoes the family business for a career in the gun trade, which makes the most of his language skills, business savvy, and slumbering conscience. Partnering with his brother Jared Leto, whose cocaine addiction eventually limits his participation, Cage supplies arms to war zones around the world, from Afghanistan to the Balkans to various African genocides. It's a lucrative field, but business really picks up after the fall of the Soviet Union opens up massive stockpiles of weapons like the popular Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he proudly hawks for its reliability. As he makes covert government deals and slips nimbly through loopholes in international law, Cage finds his only real resistance in Ethan Hawke, a straight-arrow Interpol officer determined to catch him in a mistake.
Through terrific use of voiceover narration, Niccol gets inside the head of this death merchant as he goes about his business, presenting the latest weapons to despots as if they were carpet samples. In his mind, he's merely satisfying marketplace demands: He can put AK-47s in the hands of warlords, but he can't be held responsible for what they do with them. Niccol implies that First World countries, in their covert support of warring factions around the globe, share that same cognitive dissonance by policing gun-runners with a wink and keeping them around as a necessary evil. Lord Of War drops the hammer slowly, laying out the fascinating parameters of Cage's world before opening up its argument in an astonishing denouement. In the business of killing, Niccol implies that futures are a solid investment.