Witnessing the shooting of two Russian mafia goons in a restaurant would send most people to therapy. Not Yuri Orlov. For the young Ukranian-American growing up in "Little Odessa" on Long Island, the event crystallized his unlikely sense of calling in life: providing effective armament to those who want it.
Yuri is a natural-born hustler, and he quickly graduates from peddling Uzi submachine guns to local mobsters to international arms deals. Along the way, he convinces his younger brother, Vitaly, to join him—though Vitaly's reflective and hedonistic nature means the partnership doesn't last long. Vitaly also has a conscience, something Yuri would be hard put to identify, much less follow.
That begins to change, however, after Yuri deceptively woos model Ava Fontaine into marriage with him. Ava knows Yuri's dealings aren't on the up-and-up, and she begins asking questions. But it takes the birth of their son, Nicolai, to awaken in Yuri something resembling second thoughts.
Yuri's nemesis is the dogged, straight-laced Interpol agent Jack Valentine. Despite Valentine's best efforts, however, Yuri consistently remains one step ahead of the law as he delivers AK-47s, grenades, tanks and even helicopter gunships to clients in Colombia, Afghanistan and especially Africa. Andre Baptiste Sr., dictator of the war-torn African country of Liberia, proves to be Yuri's most powerful, lucrative and dangerous patron. With Valentine seemingly always in tow, Yuri juggles supply problems, a marriage based on deception and his own nagging conscience as the Lord of War.
All around Yuri Orlov are flawed people who try, in their own way, to convince him to take an honest look at his life.
His younger brother, Vitaly, is an aimless, skirt-chasing drug and alcohol addict. Yet even Vitaly recognizes that his life has value. He keeps a "Beware of the Dog" sign in the kitchen of the restaurant where he works. When Yuri asks him about it, Vitaly says, "The dog is in me. [The sign] reminds me to be more human." He tells Yuri that maybe doing nothing is better than running guns. Later, Vitaly tells his older brother, "Those things you sell kill inside," implying that Yuri's job is damaging his soul. When Vitaly joins Yuri for one last arms deal in Liberia, he sees a woman and child murdered by a group of men and realizes that his brother is selling guns to those people. He tries to convince Yuri to renege on the deal, then blows up a truck full of guns with a grenade before being killed by Yuri's Liberian buyers.
Jack Valentine refuses to compromise the law to capture his elusive quarry. Each time he confronts Yuri—who invariably manages to elude the agent's best efforts—Valentine tries in vain to convince Yuri to leave his chosen "profession." "You get rich by giving the poorest people in the world the ability to keep killing each other," Valentine tells Yuri. In one instance, he detains Yuri for 24 hours, the maximum time he can hold someone without charging him. Valentine says that doing so will give the people Yuri's guns would kill one more day to live. In his last interrogation, Valentine tells Yuri, "I'd tell you to go to hell, but I think you're already there."
Yuri's wife has a vague idea that her husband's "business" isn't above the board, and for much of the movie is content to live the lavish life Yuri's labors procure for her. Ignorance is bliss for Ava until Valentine shows up to question her and tells her what her husband actually does. When Yuri returns home from his latest deal, he finds Ava sitting naked on the bed (the camera shows only her uncovered back). "I can't wear these clothes. They've got blood on them," she says, begging him to give up his business. Like Vitaly, Ava tries to appeal to Yuri's sense of human decency: "I have failed at everything else, Yuri. But I won't fail as a human being."
Yuri himself manages to make a few positive decisions. When the president of Liberia leaves two prostitutes in Yuri's room as a gift, he kicks them out. And for a brief time, Yuri tries to leave his life as an arms dealer for the sake of his family.
Yuri's parents, Anatoly and Irina, pretend to be Jews in order to get out of the Ukraine. But Anatoly seems to take his new religious identity seriously. Too seriously according to his wife. Irina complains that he goes to synagogue more than most real Jewish people. But Anatoly tells Yuri, "Always remember, there is something above you." And in his final scene, Anatoly has a copy of the Torah with him.
Yuri says he doesn't understand why some people are susceptible to chemical addiction, such as his brother, while others aren't. "But for the grace of God," he says, "it could be me."
At the Berlin arms fair in 1983, Yuri and Vitaly meet two models in tight-fitting camouflage shorts and shirts. Each man has sex with one of the models, and the scene includes brief breast nudity. Likewise, the shirt of a stripper Vitaly has met partially falls off, revealing one of her breasts. Yuri returns home from a trip and has sex with his wife in the shower (brief nudity is seen but mostly they are shown through the steamy shower-door glass).
After he's married Ava, Yuri makes out with a waitress and paws at her body on top of her clothes. Two female escorts wearing what look like Dallas Cowboy cheerleader uniforms are constantly with Andre Baptiste Jr., the son of the Liberian president. The two prostitutes Baptiste Sr. leaves in Yuri's room insist that they don't have AIDS and promise to do whatever Yuri wants. In a later scene, Yuri gets high on cocaine and has sex with a prostitute with apparently little concern about AIDS or fidelity. (Breast nudity makes a brief appearance here, too.)
An early scene follows a single bullet's "lifespan" from its production in a Russian factory to it being fired into the skull of a young African boy. That sets the stage for two hours of intense and bloody violence.
Two Russian gangsters are gunned down in a restaurant. An unseen sniper shoots at Vitali in Lebanon. A Colombian drug warlord shoots Yuri in the stomach. A bomb destroys a car with Yuri's uncle in it.
Baptiste Jr. enjoys driving through Monrovia, Liberia, liberally firing his automatic rifle into the streets. The president coldly shoots one of his personal guards who's flirting with a woman in Baptiste's entourage. "No discipline with the youth today," he observes. "Personally, I blame MTV." The body is carried away, leaving a smeared, bloody trail behind it.
Later, in a pivotal scene relating to the condition of Yuri's soul, Baptiste Sr. holds one of Yuri's rivals hostage, a man named Simeon Weisz. The president places Yuri's hand on the gun with his own and aims it at Weisz's head. He tells Yuri that if he simply says "stop" he won't shoot the man. Yuri is obviously uncomfortable at the thought of actually killing someone, but he doesn't respond in time. Baptiste Sr. pulls the trigger and shoots Weisz in the forehead, spraying blood all over the window behind him. (This is one of the most shocking and graphically violent scenes in the movie.)
Vitaly witnesses a group of men who chase down a woman and child, then butcher the pair with machetes. The clustered mob is big enough that you can't really see their blows landing on the doomed woman and child, but it's a chilling scene nonetheless. A vulture is shown picking at a corpse in Monrovia. We glimpse another decaying corpse on the ground in Afghanistan.
Crude or Profane Language
Roughly 50 uses of the f-word bombard viewers, as well as about a half-dozen s-words. Characters take God's name in vain; twice it is linked with "d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Few scenes don't include someone smoking a cigarette or drinking, usually wine, champagne or hard liquor. Indeed, drinking and smoking are as commonplace as dialogue.
What's surprisingly graphic, however, are at least half-a-dozen scenes that show Vitaly or Yuri snorting cocaine. Vitali has a serious cocaine addiction, which brother Yuri willingly feeds. Several times, Vitali begs his brother for another hit, and Yuri simply pulls a small vial of coke out of his pocket and gives it to him. Yuri even gives his brother the drug as he drops him off at a rehab clinic.
At first, Yuri seems less susceptible to cocaine's pull. But after he participates in murdering Simeon Weisz, Yuri goes to a bar, gets drunk and tries a line of the local drug concoction called "brown brown": a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder that the local warlords give to young boys before sending them into battle. The bartender convinces Yuri to give it a try, saying, "After all, it's your gunpowder."
Other Negative Elements
Yuri's worldview is deeply cynical. His voiceovers throughout the movie reveal the depths of this pained perspective. Almost everything Yuri does is based on deception. Of his courtship he says, "Some of the most successful relationships are based on lies and deceit." He also brags, "Selling guns is like selling vacuum cleaners; I've sold [Israeli-made] Uzis to Muslims." Other cynical one-liners include, "Bullets change governments faster than votes," and, "If I've done my job right, an arms embargo should be practically impossible to enforce."
It almost goes without saying that bribery is part and parcel to Yuri's work; everything he does requires a bribe to greedy officials—including a crooked American officer willing to sell him used Army munitions.
Lord of War opens with Yuri Orlov standing on what looks like an ocean of spent bullet casings in a Third World war zone. His voiceover tells us that there are 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation, one for every 12 people. "How do we arm the other 11?" he asks. It's that sort of detached, ironic narration that shapes this complex film.
The first half invites us to connect with Yuri's character. Sure, we know he's a scoundrel, but we've not yet really seen the carnage wrought by his profession. When Valentine intercepts Yuri on a boat en route to Colombia, we're still rooting for Yuri to escape.
In the second half, however, director Andrew Niccol (who's also responsible for the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Gattaca) pulls a cunning bait and switch by giving us an unflinching look at the bloody consequences of Yuri Orlov's work. He's no mere scoundrel; instead, his work puts guns in the hands of wicked men to whom human life is less than cheap. After participating in Weisz's murder, Orlov begins to reconsider. But the momentum of his choices proves overpowering, and he's unable to pull away from the narcotic allure of brokering weapons to bloodthirsty despots.
Then, just when you think this is (only) a gut-wrenching character study, a heavy-handed twist at the end goes for a political knockout punch by suggesting that Yuri's shameless profiteering as a gun runner is nothing compared to the activities of the world's five largest arms dealers: the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain—an assertion I'm still wrestling with several days after seeing the film.
Lord of War, then, is a provocative film apparently designed to challenge our assumptions about the U.S.'s role in the world. It is also addicted to graphic depictions of violence, drug abuse and sexuality. And that forces me to ask these questions: Are its hyper-grim images necessary? Does it really take this much visceral aggression to drive us to grapple with such significant accusations and questions? Should it?