The Best Movie You’ve Never Seen: Lord of War

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or have risen to prominence over the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or an underrated gem that was either of its time was ahead and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’re looking at LORD OF WAR…

THE HISTORY: In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), a simple thug, becomes a notorious arms dealer, exploiting connections in the former Soviet Union and selling his wares to anyone with the money.

THE PLAYERS: Directed and written by Andrew Niccol. Starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Ian Holm, Bridget Moynahan and Ethan Hawke.

THE HISTORY: 2005 was one of the highlights for Nicolas Cage. At that time he was able to take on commercial projects (like the National Treasure films) with more artistic ones like this and the same year The Weathermanand Cage had an amazing role. Lord of War was a pet project of his, allowing him to play versus dudes as the cold-blooded, amoral Yuri Orlov (a composite character based on several arms dealers, including the now imprisoned Viktor Bout).


Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, whose Gattaca is another unjustly obscure classic, Lord of War dropped like a stone at the US box office and opened behind Reese Witherspoon’s vehicle Like in heaven and That Exorcism by Emily Rose, which only grossed $24 million domestically, not a great result for a $50 million film. Fortunately for investors, Cage’s still strong overseas earnings pushed the film into the black, taking the worldwide gross to $72 million. Critically it was relatively well received, but around the Oscars period it was completely ignored and the home video market sold it as an action film, even though it wasn’t that type of film at all.

Well, you know, you’re talking about… the only character that stars in the film is in Lord of War. For me it was really interesting to explore the dark side of human nature. And indeed, a film directed by Akira Kurosawa, who only explains it in the title – the badder you are, the better you sleep. I thought about that in almost every scene of Lord of War. The problem with people who have a conscience is that it slows them down. We all like to say, “How can you sleep at night?” But the thing is, when you have no conscience, you sleep like a baby. [Laughs] – Andreas Nicol – Film school rejects job interview

WHY IT’S GREAT: Lord of War is an example of the kind of film that Hollywood has all but abandoned, the big-budget adult drama. Today, faced with a star of a similar stature to Cage’s then, Lord of War could still be made but for a fraction of the cost and not as labor intensive. Despite the difficult subject Lord of War is a great movie. Beautifully shot, with innovative CGI used to enhance (but not dominate) the story, and big stars in juicy roles, you can’t help but feel nostalgic for the era in which this was made. Sure, it’s only been seventeen years, but the business has changed so much that it might as well have been a lifetime.


Now a financier would be out to make Yuri “likable.” Take the newer ones for example war dogsand the way director Todd Phillips had to constantly jam into scenes that showed the Miles Teller character had a conscience, diverting focus from Jonah Hill’s more amoral (and realistic) gangster gunrunner where it should have been .

The fact is, arms dealers are bastards. They make money off murder, and Cage’s character is totally unlikable, but he works at the peak of his abilities and makes it work just like a guy like Al Pacino scarface, making this the classic gangster movie pantheon (and what’s a gunrunner but a two-bit gangster). While the subplot, which revolves around his wife as a beauty queen (Bridget Moynahan), seems a bit nailed to give a little courage, and Hawke – as an ATF agent – has to spend pretty much all of his screen time moralizing , this is a hard piece of work. Thoroughbred through and through.

“I’m kind of obsessed with Nic Cage. I just found out about /r/onetrugod as well. He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando who’s really done something new with acting; He successfully took us from an obsession with naturalism to a type of presentation style of drama that I believe was popular with the troubadours of old. If I could delete his bad bottom half movies and just keep his top half movies, he would blow everyone else out of the water. He put a little too much water in his beer, but he’s still one of the great actors of our time. And working with him was an absolute pleasure. In fact, one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done is the final scene in LORD OF WAR.” – Ethan Hawke – Reddit AMA


Cage seems to be having the time of his life embodying Yuri’s amorality, but to his credit, he stops chewing scenery. Another great performance comes from Jared Leto as his junkie brother, proving that discovering a conscience in this realm is a deadly prospect (Leto gave the film a hoot when I interviewed him lately). Everyone is great in it, including Oz’s Eamonn Walker as a warlord based on Liberia’s Charles Taylor and the late Ian Holm as the more humane gunslinger.

BEST SCENE: I remember seeing Lord of War Opening night at the Scotiabank Theater in Montreal, and the audience applauds at the end of the opening sequence, which shows a bullet being made, bagged and finally shot into a child soldier. It’s strong stuff, but it starts the movie on an unforgettable note.

DO YOU SEE IT: Lord of War is easy to see, be it on streaming services or on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital.

FINAL SHOT: Visually striking, with plenty of interesting shots pitting Cage against old Soviet monuments or bullets, running a meager 120 minutes, Lord of War is one of those films that I return to every few years and always get something new out of it. Hopefully Cage finds his way back to this type of material, since there aren’t many actors who could have pulled off the film like he’s doing here. The Best Movie You’ve Never Seen: Lord of War

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