If the year in cinema 2005 saw a return to prominence for the kind of socially conscious, political thriller ('Syriana,' 'Munich,' 'Good Night, and Good Luck') not seen since the genre's heyday in the 1970s , then 'Lord of War' got lost in the shuffle. A complex, darkly comedic and fictionalized look at the arms race, it is as daring and provocative as any of its contemporaries, so it comes as a surprise that less than a year after its release, few people even remember it. It is also a shame, because Andrew Niccol's often audacious polemic is, in its own way, just as emotionally involving and morally incisive as such politik-cinema classics as 'All the President's Men,' 'Network' and 'The Parallax View.'
'Lord of War' charts the rise and fall of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), from his early days in the '80s, running guns to mobsters in Little Odessa, to his rise as a highly successful international arms dealer, to his inevitable downfall amid decadence and violence. Similar to such sprawling, decades-spanning epics as 'GoodFellas,' 'Blow,' 'Once Upon a Time in America' and 'Scarface,' 'Lord of War' uses the dilemmas Yuri faces in his private moral journey through the black market arms trade to explore larger truths about our global culture and the exploitation of violence for profit. From Yuri's misguided business partnership with an African warlord (Eamonn Walker) and his psychotic son (Sammi Rotibi), to his duplicitous marriage to a famous model (Bridget Moynahan), to the relentless pursuit of him by a determined federal agent (Ethan Hawke), his inner demons are a microcosm for the larger issues we, in our self-righteous culture, denounce yet turn a blind eye to.
Niccol's direction, as well as a strong performance by Cage, give 'Lord of War' a level of emotional impact beyond most political thrillers, which often sacrifice character for plot and preachiness. Niccol wisely never lets the film's ethical debate overshadow Yuri's story. Indeed, 'Lord of War' works just as well as a thriller as it does a drama and as an action movie, however cynical its ultimate worldview may be. It's a tough high-wire act Niccol and Cage (who as Yuri also narrates) have to pull off -- the film wants to be bleakly funny, in that sort of Catch-22 way, but also rail without sentiment or irony at a billion-dollar business that turns 13-year-olds into gun-toting killers. That it succeeds more often than not is no small accomplishment.
Not that 'Lord of War' is a perfect film. Its 122-minute runtime drags in spots, and some of Niccol's aggressive flights of fancy can be a bit showy (alhough one particular early montage in the film is pretty brilliant, taking a bullet's-eye-view as it moves from ore to the assembly line to finishing, packaging, distribution, sale and eventual use; the montage ends with the bullet passing through the brain of a young man -- it's the perfect merging of form, artistry and theme). It is also arguable that 'Lord of War's failure at the box office is because it is so nihilistic. Little hope is offered at film's end, and those wanting to come away with more answers than questions (or god forbid, a sense of uplift) will be sorely disappointed. Perhaps 'Lord of War's ultimate worldview is best summed up by a bit of Yuri's narration early in the film. He tells us he will sell to anyone, anytime -- except for one customer. He never sold to Osama bin Laden, he says without irony, because "he was always bouncing checks."
'Lord of War' was originally exhibited theatrically at 2.40:1, but when it came time for its subsequent DVD release, for some reason the folks at Lionsgate chose to transfer the film at a cropped 1.78:1 aspect ratio. According to press reports at the time, the studio claimed the change was made with the approval of the film's production company (though whether director Andrew Niccol was consulted as well is not known). Whatever the real story, fans were not happy with the decision, and rightly so -- 'Lord of War' is a very well-photographed film, and all of that hard work deserves to be seen in the form it was intended. Thankfully, Lionsgate has reverted back to the film's original theatrical aspect ratio for this Blu-ray release, which is properly presented at 2.40:1 and encoded at 1080p.
In addition to the aspect ratio issue, that old DVD transfer had other problems. I thought it was too dark, and occasionally marred by edge enhancement. This Blu-ray release is an improvement -- the transfer no longer looks as murky (though it still has some problematic moments where shadow delineation suffers), and it is overall much more smooth and film-like. The photography does look intentionally grainy in spots, but the source material is in fine shape with no major artifacts or blemishes present. Blacks are also very strong and consistent, which gives the film a nice sense of contrast and depth, and it's clearly more detailed than the standard DVD release. Sharpness, too, is better; I saw far less edginess to the image, which gives the picture a more natural, film-like look. Colors are vivid and largely (but not entirely) free of noise, which was also a problem on the previous DVD. Ultimately, of all the initial Sony and Lionsgate Blu-ray titles I've seen thus far, 'Lord of War' is among the best.
With its first Blu-ray offerings, Lionsgate has broken away from all other studios currently supporting the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats by offering only what is basically a port of the audio tracks from the standard DVD release -- no PCM, Dolby Digital-Plus or Dolby TrueHD options here. 'Lord of War' is presented in Dolby Digital EX Surround, and if you really want to wake up your pets, a slightly superior DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete track is offered as well.
Even better than the transfer, this soundtrack is first-rate. Though not consistently enveloping throughout, when the action scenes kick in, you'll certainly feel it. Dynamic range is excellent, with spacious mid-range and high-end, and strong, powerful deep bass. The film's sound design is also quite aggressive during the action moments -- both loud and soft sounds are carefully placed throughout the soundfield, with pans between channels smooth and effective. However, I would have liked a bit more ambience during quieter passages -- subtle atmospherics could have been more pronounced in the rear channels. Still, it is hard to complain about either the Dolby or DTS mixes included here. Great stuff.
Like all of Lionsgate first Blu-ray releases, there are no extras included on 'Lord of War.' None at all, not even a trailer. This, despite the fact that the studio released a very nice two-disc special edition of the film last year. Bummer.
'Lord of War' looks quite good on Blu-ray. Lionsgate has delivered a very nice transfer and soundtrack, though the lack of any extras at all is a real disappointment. For the Blu-ray format to succeed, I think it has to deliver more than just great video and audio -- and a full spate of extras will certainly help motivate enthusiasts to update their collections to the next-gen format. As is, this release just doesn't offer a complete enough package to truly justify its steep $39.95 price tag.