Over the years, I've been alternately dazzled and disappointed by the work of director Ridley Scott. When he's really on his game, Scott has few peers, crafting inventive, tight, entertaining works that satisfy from both a narrative and visual perspective. From 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner' through 'Gladiator,' 'Black Hawk Down,' and the underappreciated 'Matchstick Men,' Sir Ridley effortlessly crisscrosses genres and often weaves a hypnotic spell. But when he falls, he falls hard. Both the vapid 'A Good Year' and the inert, self-important 'American Gangster' left me cold. So when 'Body of Lies' arrived in theaters last fall, I approached the film with a fair amount of trepidation, unsure of which Ridley Scott would show up.
Any worries quickly dissipated. Though it doesn't rank with his masterworks, 'Body of Lies' is definitely a return to form for Scott. Part action thriller, part espionage primer, part indictment of American arrogance, this exposé of CIA tactics and agent manipulation against the backdrop of the Iraq war benefits greatly from the director's keen sense of cinematic style and the riveting performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.
It also plays better the second time around. I must admit to feeling a bit lukewarm toward 'Body of Lies' after my initial theatrical viewing. Thanks to the trailer, I came in expecting a high-octane thrill ride in the 'Bourne' vein, and wasn't prepared for its more deliberate, nuanced storytelling and narrative complexities. Yet seeing the film a few months later in a more intimate home theater setting with amplified audio and video, I felt more connected to the characters and more invested in their choices. Tension seemed heightened, even though the plot no longer held any surprises, and the message resonated more fully. I still can't say 'Body of Lies' is a great film, but there are great elements within it that I'm anxious to revisit yet again.
Written by William Monahan (who adapted the novel by Washington Post reporter David Ignatius), 'Body of Lies' centers on haggard CIA agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), who increasingly questions his organization's brutal tactics. Disillusioned, but still driven by the desire to "make a difference," Ferris wearily soldiers on, playing the role of marionette to his puppeteer boss, the rumpled Ed Hoffman (Crowe), who robotically juggles mundane domestic chores, like dropping his daughter off at school or helping his toddler use the toilet, while spouting directives to the overseas operatives he micromanages via cell phone. Ferris' latest mission is to track down and capture Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul), an Al-Qaeda ringleader responsible for numerous terrorist attacks. To preserve their cover, Saleem and his men have cleverly shucked their computers and cell phones and adopted more primitive, hand-to-mouth forms of communication, making it more difficult for the tech savvy Americans to penetrate their network and ferret them out. Jordanian intelligence, led by the suave, ruthless Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), aids the CIA in its quest, but mutual distrust poisons the alliance. Through deception and covert operations, the cocky Americans test the limits of the Jordanians' strict honor code, ultimately putting Ferris and his burgeoning romantic relationship with Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a local nurse, in jeopardy.
Scott relates well to Third World locales and thrusts us into the thick of Middle Eastern culture and the region's uncertain political climate. A constant uneasy feeling pervades the film, which isn't always easy to follow. Keeping track of the ethnic names can be tough (especially when they're as similar as Salaam and Saleem), but occasional flashback snatches help refresh our memory, and the leisurely pacing gives us time to process the various plot trajectories and shifting alliances. Wisely, Scott steers clear of flashy technique to spice up the proceedings, instead employing subtle, steady camera movement to add essential motion and flow to each scene. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of gunfights and explosions (and one especially brutal torture sequence), and Scott attacks them with his customary vigor, but they don't define the film.
The performances by DiCaprio and Crowe, however, do. Not since De Niro and Pacino shared the screen has a male acting duo so completely captivated. Though they're rarely in the same frame – they communicate in large part by phone – the pair still creates crackling chemistry. Like Ali and Frazier, they delicately dance around the ring deflecting jabs, playing off each other's energy, but there's no bravado or showboating; it's just lean, mean acting, and it's a joy to watch. DiCaprio, arguably his generation's finest actor, is always spot-on, and with subtle clarity shows us how the unsavory aspects of Ferris' job slowly eat away at him. Crowe has less to do, but maximizes every opportunity, painting a searing portrait of a pompous man whose only concern is the mission at hand. His casual, heartless reaction to lost life and collateral damage is chilling, but completely believable in this high-stakes political climate.
'Body of Lies' may not have much lasting impact, but it's a fine topical snapshot of our current situation and a film that works both as an action thriller and probing character study. In a decade, it will probably seem dated, but for now, it's a worthwhile, relevant effort that fans of international thrillers should enjoy.
Warner has fashioned a spectacularly film-like 1080p/VC-1 transfer that faithfully honors Scott's intentions. The breathtaking image clarity brings the dust and grime of the Middle Eastern locales into our living room, occasionally providing a striking multi-dimensional feel (check out the 'copters), while grittier handheld video sequences exhibit just the right amount of grain. Fleshtones always look natural, and close-ups lock securely onto fine facial details, such as pores, scars, and hair. The inky blacks resemble bottomless dark pools and add palpable tension to various scenes, and shadow delineation remains solid even in the trickiest conditions. Whites are also stable and true, and only blow out for cinematic effect.
Colors are fairly muted, even when the action shifts to the greener pastures of D.C. The film often flaunts a warm golden or cool blue cast, but there are nice brown gradients in the rocky desert landscapes and the azure sky adds splashes of welcome tint without any banding. A slight bit of edge enhancement can be detected, but you really have to look for it, and DNR seems utterly absent. This thrilling transfer just misses a reference quality rating, but still greatly enhances the film's mood and impact. Terrific job, Warner.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track matches the video in quality, offering up a highly immersive, surround-heavy experience. Though the sound field is quite active, it never seems cluttered. Imaging is excellent, with lots of subtle atmospherics and distinct accents emanating from the rears, while the front channels benefit from finely tuned separation that never feels mechanical. Details are crisp, from footsteps crunching in the sand to the whistle of a rocket propelled grenade, and Marc Streitenfeld's excellent score enjoys great tonal depth, especially in the low end. For the most part, dialogue is well prioritized and understandable; a few lines are muffled, but that may be due more to mumbling and Middle Eastern accents than an imbalanced mix.
The only area of the track that's a little lacking is the bass frequency, which doesn't pump out the room-shaking rumbles we crave. Explosions are surprisingly anemic, and in a film like this, that's a shame. Luckily, TNT doesn't play a starring role in 'Body of Lies,' so the issue isn't a deal breaker. In all other respects, however, this is a top-tier track that will shine on a good system.
'Body of Lies' comes loaded with a fine array of supplements that take viewers deep inside the production. All material is in 1080p with stereo audio.
Ridley Scott may have recently stumbled, but he's found his footing once again with 'Body of Lies.' This slow-burn CIA thriller astutely captures the current political climate and features top-flight work from Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Warner has supplied a pair of stunning transfers and some meaty extras, all of which make this disc easy to recommend. Fans of the director and actors will certainly want to add it to their collection; others should consider at least a rental.