I knew, ahead of time, when I started on the Nicolas Cage-em-up theme for a month that this was going to be the movie I did last. I knew, because I knew that I thought really well of this movie, that there was a definite here here. That there was a story I remembered seeing – like, in 2007 – and that I had the sort of lurched, sunk-in feeling in my gut that the movie I’d seen had been something. That it was impressive and dark and also weirdly funny, but I somehow couldn’t remember the finale, couldn’t remember the end clearly.
Coming back to it, I realised the reason I couldn’t remember the end clearly, because the ending isn’t clear. It just goes on.
And that’s the point.
If you’re looking for a recommendation and want to see if you should bother with movies, going in blind, you should absolutely check out Lord Of War if you can handle a violent, drug-addled movie about guns and death and the idea of industrialised human harm and atrocities. This movie is cynical in a way few stories manage, and dark in a way that few actors can pull off.
And Nicolas Cage is pretty much perfect in this movie.
The narrative of this movie is a crime… drama? It’s not a thriller, though there are points of tension. It follows the arc of a man named Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer who started his career selling guns by getting off-market Israeli guns through duplicitously-earned Jewish credentials, and eventually became wealthy beyond all reasonable means supplying guns throughout the world with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent dissolution of the idea of World Order. That’s it, that’s the story, it’s just a history narrative that travels from Brooklyn around the world looking at a variety of different places where an arms dealer has had some reason to show up and deal arms.
If you know your history of the 80s through to the early 00s in international war, yes, it’s that bad.
The movie is unreal and realistic. The ways it’s unreal don’t matter — for example, the models of guns are not, technically accurate. Interpol does not actually have an international presence that lets them chase down planes like that, arresting people on the docks like a cowboy cop while waving assault rifles in unarmed people’s faces. Liberia does not have a debilitating AIDS presence. Some of the details like ranks and troop sizes and the wording of specific rules, they’re all a bit wobbly. I was surprised, on the rewatch, that it never says based on a true story — because it kind of was. Yuri Orlov is a composite of about five different arms dealers. It makes sense, though, this narrative wants to be about the idea of a centralising history through the story of people.
Colonel Southern is a silhouette of Oliver North. Andre Baptiste is the shape of Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia at the time of the movie’s setting. And Jack Valentine is a single individual who can carry the narrative of the international effort to stop people like Yuri Orlov. That’s one of the bleaker points about this movie — the real people who exist are worse than the movie makes them, and the best person in the movie (who’s still not a good person) is someone stitched together out of many other pieces.
The movie does a surprising amount of research – like getting Vitaly and Yuri’s accent correct (as best they could) and details about guns’ manufacture and distribution is reasonably correct. It is about real events. There is an AK 47 on the flag of Mozambique, though there wasn’t a coin with an AK47 on it when the movie was made in 2005. I know, this movie has a flag thing and a currency thing, of course I was going to have an opinion on it. A commemorative coin that wasn’t a type of currency was minted in 2002 in Russia, but that was basically a collector’s item. The Cook Islands have a similar commemorative coin that is a kind of currency that has a AK47 on it, to commemorate Kalashnikov’s life. So it wasn’t true when the movie said it, but it was true afterwards.
And that’s not the only way this movie is a weird time traveller.
This movie that was released in 2005 is a Breaking Bad speedrun. Oh, you may have that fantasy that Breaking Bad is about the slow dissolution of Walter White from a schoolteacher to a terrible human, but if you watch the whole series you’ll notice that the whole of Walter’s life is about how much he sucks and how he’s always been awful at treating people around him like people. Yuri Orlov got in the business faster but it’s the same core question of how being good and clever and meticulous and treating dreadful crimes like an accountant doesn’t diminish the impact of those things we recognise as crimes for a reason. It’s about how being polite and even charming and charismatic does not stop the terrible consequences of your actions ripping apart the world.
It is a movie about guns, but not guns as individual objects humans hold and wield, it is not about guns killing people, it is about people killing people, with guns. It is about the way that when there is an industrialised machine ensuring that there are guns enough for just in case then the need for those guns is further increased. It’s a movie about mass production of guns, and how any given rule about what you or me or the second amendment want of guns, there is an undeniable effect of filling the world with them.
Gun control is one of those conversations that always strikes me as absurd when I deal with it. It’s always this question of gun manufacturers existing to do things the utmost letter of the law and then break everything around it. It’s always about technicalities, about well I should be able to, about slippery slopes. It’s never a question of consequences. It’s never a question of systems, or about responsibility.
This is because it is easiest, every time, to argue about the question in the way that’s the least solvable. It’s always best, if you don’t want things to ever get better, to take the argument to a place where it’s intractable.
I watched a massacre on my birthday and after that my nation banned a lot of guns and made gun ownership regulated like car ownership. And part of this involved looking at guns in terms of systems and looking at clear and reasonable estimates of what people do with guns and how people use guns, rather than about whether a barrel is exactly one five eigths of an inch. It’s amazing because Australian gun laws treat gun owners like people, rather than like clueless robots who need the most technical definitions. And Lord of War is a movie about technicalities and rules and systems and loopholes and why the things are the way they are. Money and power. And usually, they are both in service of one another.
Australia has not had a mass gun death incident in twenty five years.