Dir/scr: Andrew Niccol.US. 2005. 121mins.

Andrew Niccol has always been a fascinating writer,exploring decidedly catchy, low-fi concepts about the collision of humanity andmodernity, while also showing a consistent distrust of authority.

His list of credits aswriter-director includes the under-heralded sci-fi drama of Gattaca, thebloated Hollywood-goes-digital satire Simone, and of course thescreenplay for Peter Weir's The Truman Show and the original story forSteven Spielberg's The Terminal.

His latest effort behind thecamera is the characteristically ambitious Lord Of War, a sprawling andsuperficially entertaining but sometimes too smug tale of a charismatic armsmerchant riding the wave of weapons proliferation and violence to unapologeticpersonal fortune.

With a budget upwards of$45m, the independently produced feature represents an interesting mixture ofsmirky biography (it's inspired by real events and allegedly loosely based on areal individual), social drama and background-as-character-study (also see Rounders).

The film opened Statesidelast week in third place with $9.2m, behind Reese Witherspoon's Just LikeHeaven and horror/procedural holdover The Exorcism Of Emily Rose.

Lord Of War should continue to do well with both fans of starNicolas Cage and arthouse patrons drawn to its unique settings andsocio-political underpinnings, but doesn't pack enough of a typically catharticpunch to draw in traditional action fans via word of mouth. As such it seemslikely to earn back the lions' share of its investment abroad and throughsustained ancillary value.

Yuri Orlov (Cage) is aRussian emigre whose parents landed in Brighton Beach, New York, and adopted afalse Jewish identity when he was a child. Disillusioned with the prospects ofworking in his parents' perpetually empty kosher restaurant, and galvanised bythe experience of witnessing a gangland club shooting, Yuri in the early 1980sturns to gun-running.

Needing a partner, he draftshis sweet-tempered, reluctant younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) into businesswith him, only to just as quickly dispassionately park him in rehab (severaltimes) when Vitaly turns out not to have his ability as his keep drug userecreational.

For several years, Yuri'sbusiness is good, but still small-fry. All this time, he harbours a secretcrush on model Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a fellow immigrant from theUkraine. With the means to fake even more extravagant wealth, Yuri embarks onan elaborate scam to win Ava's heart, and it works. She knows he's up to nogood, but doesn't ask too many questions about his import/export business, andthey wed and eventually have a son.

In 1991, the dissolution ofthe Soviet Union is an occupational godsend for Yuri, and he races to theformer Ukrainian Republic to reconnect with his great-uncle, an army generalnamed Dmitri (Eugene Lazarev), and sell off to the highest bidders AK-47s,reams of ammunition, helicopters, missiles' heck, entire tank battalions.

Yuri is, by nature, anapolitical animal - he gleefully sells Israeli-made Uzi machineguns to Muslims,and communist-manufactured bullets to fascists - claiming, "I would just assoon every weapon I sell fire and miss, as long as they're firing them." ForYuri, the rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapon might as well be the ringing of acash register.

But the unsavoury companythat Yuri keeps, including brutal, corrupt Liberian president Andre Baptiste(Eamonn Walker, quite good), attracts the attention of some powerful enemies -including seasoned arms rival Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) and Interpol agent JackValentine (Ethan Hawke), who each have their own separate designs on endingYuri's business dealings.

Cage is the right actor tohang a movie like this on, adept as he is at playing someone who is morallycompromised and/or self-destructive (Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas)without the venality of his sins washing away his innate likeability. YuriOrlov, however much an amalgamation of various real-life figures he may be, isnevertheless a fascinating character.

The ugly truth, though, isthat in a post-September 11 world, a movie like Lord Of War that ispurportedly "based on true events" and about the free flow of weapons big andsmall, requires a more than an ironic, bird's eye narration and pithy one-linerabout Osama bin Laden if its social commentary is to be taken seriously.

If, as Lord Of Warasserts, bullets change governments much more surely than votes, then where isthe evaluation - however cynical and black-hearted - of conspiracy or eventacit governmental approval'

The film tries to play thiscard in its finale, as postscript titles point out that the five biggestinternational exporters of weapons are the five permanent member states of theUnited Nations Security Council - but it rings false and overly manipulative.

Likewise, the film's openingtracks, in an awkward amalgamation of live action and CG, the "life" of asingle bullet from its attached-camera point-of-view. It's a catchy opening ofsorts for a film, but at odds with what is essentially a much more intenselypersonal tale of capitalistic reinvention.

Lord Of War has a cool surface-to-air touch that keeps youcaught up in the moment, but - for however incendiary it would like to be seenas - it requires viewers fill in the large gaps between Yuri's actions (likeDaniel Craig's X from Layer Cake, he's a self-proclaimed savvybusinessman whose goods of commerce just happen to be illegal) and theamorality of state-sponsored arms peddling. It thus lacks the majorgravitational pull that a film of its scope should exert.

The bulk of Lord Of War wasshot in Cape Town, South Africa, with additional pick-ups in Brighton Beach andthe Czech Republic. Cinematographer Amir Mokri's work is deft and evocative;with a number of filters and lenses he helps subtly define a number ofdisparate locations, and the film has a scope that often exceeds its estimatedbudget.

One would assume, correctly,that Yuri's success means a lot of playthings, but a black market gun-runner'swealth is necessarily not ostentatious, so this material wealth is frequentlypresented in empty, almost plaintive frames.

In this respect, thecamerawork and look of the film interestingly delineates a loneliness in Yurithat the script does not further investigate.

Production companies
VIP Medienfonds 3
Ascendant Pictures
Saturn Films
Rising Star
Copag V
Endgame Entertainment
Entertainment Manufacturing Co

US distribution
Lions Gate

International sales
Arclight Films

Executive producers
Fabrice Gianfermi
Bradley Cramp
Andreas Schmid
Christopher Eberts
Gary Hamilton
Michael Mendelsohn
James D Stern

Philippe Rousselet
Norm Golightly
Andrew Niccol
Nicolas Cage
Andy Grosch
Chris Roberts
Teri-Lin Robertson
Douglas E Hansen

Amir Mokri

Production design
Jean Vincent Puzos

Zach Staenberg

Antonio Pinto

Main cast
Nicolas Cage
Jared Leto
Bridget Moynahan
Ethan Hawke
Eamonn Walker
Ian Holm
Sammi Rotibi
Steve Termath
Eugene Lazarev
Jean-Pierre Nshanian
Shake Toukhmanian
Nalu Tripician
Patrick Walton Jr