Ambition is in such short supply at the multiplex — look and weep at the formula drool of Just Like Heaven — that it seems churlish to hammer Lord of War for having too much of it. But the poison arrows of satire that writer-director Andrew Niccol aims at international arms dealing and the great powers who let it happen for their own gain — the U.S. dangles prominently on Niccol's hook — are frustratingly scattershot.
It helps that Nicolas Cage is a sparking live wire as Yuri Orlov, the Ukrainian kid from New York's Little Odessa who finds working in his parents' restaurant a ticket to nowhere compared to dealing weapons around the globe. Yuri follows a rags-to-riches trajectory similar to that of the drug lord played by Johnny Depp in 2001's Blow, with the same stops at babes, drugs and conspicuous consumption until his moral decline becomes apparent even to him. Niccol says he based Yuri on five actual gunrunners. Lord knows there's enough plot here for five movies.
When the dialogue isn't enough to provide the facts, Niccol stuffs Yuri's mouth with cynical, often hilarious narration to describe the dirty business in detail, as an Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke, looking alternately fierce and clueless) tracks Yuri through the Third World. Baptiste (Eamonn Walker), a psychotic Liberian dictator who cleans up nicely for his U.N. meetings, is the toughest customer encountered by Yuri, the merchant of death who keeps insisting more people die from cars and cigarettes than from his AK-47s.
Yuri's verbal pyrotechnics are far more intriguing than the fictional plot devices used to provide human drama, including Yuri's supermodel wife, Ava (Bridget Moynahan), and his cokehead brother, Vitali (Jared Leto), who grows a conscience late in the game to foment a big-bang climax. Niccol is too good a screenwriter (The Truman Show, Gattaca) not to know that Hollywood cliches are hell on a film's political bite. They muzzle it.