The family of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) hailed from the Ukraine, but had to leave the country for the United States after posing as Jews and settled in Little Odessa where they owned a restaurant. Not wishing to follow his father into that line of work, Yuri looked around his life to see what he wanted to do, and one day he was the witness to a gangland shooting when a lightbulb of inspiration appeared above his head: he would be an arms dealer. He started out small, selling to the locals, but soon he was making money and his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) joined him in his underhand trade. All the way through his life Yuri had been loving Ava Fonatine (Bridget Moynahan) from afar, and now she was a model, her face haunted him from billboards across the world, for yes, Yuri had gone international...
In all those Hollywood action movies where the heroes and villains fire off rounds and rounds of bullets, not much thought is given to where the guns and ammunition came from. Lord of War, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, sets out to put that right by taking the viewer into the heart of the arms trade - not the major, government deals but the guys a little lower down the ladder, guys such as Yuri who sell illegally and do those governments - places like the U.S.A., the U.K., France, Russia or China - a favour by selling to those regimes they can't officially be seen to be backing, but nevertheless share their political point of view.
A caption at the end informs us that this film is based on true events, and it certainly has the smack of authenticity. Taking the form of a series of related anecdotes could become tiring after a while, but Niccol manages to sustain interest thanks to his anecdotes being worth listening to. We follow Yuri, a charismatic and laconic performance by Cage, on his rise to the top and witness what he sacrifices along the way, which is more than any integrity he may have started out with. All the way through we are privy to Yuri's thoughts in voiceover as if her were giving a particularly cynical lecture, and sometimes he's funny, other times sobering.
Sadly, Vitaly is not made of such strong stuff as his brother, quickly succumbing to cocaine addiction thanks to his new found wealth, and Yuri has to regretfully drop him, although his conscience doesn't seem to bother him. Yuri treats his relationships as he would his business, rationalising his behaviour as he would his attitude that people will always be wanting to kill other people. He does get the girl, and Ava becomes his wife after some clever managing of his funds and debts, but he's still living dangerously as far as his finances are concerned. Then, a stroke of luck, better news than his child's first steps: the fall of the Soviet Union.
After that Yuri has access to all the weapons he could ever need, and not even the pesterings of moral government man Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) can bring him down. It's to Niccol's credit that he shows rather than tells about his protagonist's dealings, we rarely get characters sermonising, other than Yuri's stream of excuses of course. Selling in West Africa to a warlord (the excellent Eamonn Walker) is second nature to him even though he knows that the arms will do nothing but spread strife. Somebody's got to supply the guns, why shouldn't it be Yuri? But eventually life around him falls apart and you wonder if he's addicted to gun running the same way his brother is addicted to coke as it is the only constant in his world. He is a hypocrite, never considering using a weapon on anybody himself but equally never considering he might be the cause of mass murder. Lord of War, while going on past where the point has been made, has a lot of controlled, righteous anger and can't help but be thought-provoking. Music by Antonio Pinto.
[The recommended two disc special edition DVD includes a commentary, interviews, documentaries - including one about the arms trade - and more.]