There are enough firearms on the planet to arm one out of every 12 people; the trick is figuring out how to arm the other 11. While that might sound like the basest form of cynicism to any normal person with something approaching a moral compass, it’s the thesis statement for the international arms dealing industry. And it’s also the opening line to Lord of War, a semi-autobiographical movie about the kind of person who decides to sell weapons for a living, how you can’t hazard your soul if you never really had one in the first place, and why so few arms dealers ever go to jail.
The story tells the tale of Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainan refugees who, after witnessing some Russian mob violence, decides that selling guns to bad people is the kind of business for him. He recruits his younger brother Vitaly and after making a small fortune dealing arms to both sides of the Lebanon conflict in the early 1980s, he continues a ruthless upward climb in the world of illegal arms. He helps outfit Colombian drug lords and Western African warmongers, all while keeping his living a secret from his ex-model wife and staying a few steps ahead of an Interpol agent who has made it his professional mission to put Yuri behind bars. But the more Yuri makes a killing at making a killing, the more he learns that every business has operating costs. And in this business, those costs go well beyond figuring out how to buy a bunch of surplus Russian tanks under the table, and range into drug addiction, unprotected sex with HIV-infected prostitutes and watching your family take bullets that, if there were any justice in the world, should have your name on them.
Lord of War is a biographical pastiche based loosely upon a number of infamous arms dealers, organized crime figures and shadowy quasi-government sorts who do dirty business for countries that don’t wish to admit to it. From the very beginning, we’re given a pretty good idea of what we are in for, with a breathtaking opening sequence that follows the life cycle of a single bullet…from the stamping of its brass casing…to its arrival in a crate of hundreds of other bullets,,,to its transit from Russia to West Africa,,,to its loading into an AK-47 magazine…and finally to its fateful flight through the air and into a child soldier’s brain.
It’s the kind of sequence where even a detailed written description does little to capture its malign energy; we can’t help but be fascinated by watching the forces at work to make these bullets by the millions, and we have a sinister curiosity about where the bullet will go and against whom it will be used. And when we finally see, at the end, where it’s going to land, we feel shock over its victim. But really, we should be feeling it over our own desire to keep watching. By the time we learn the bullet’s victim is just a kid, we’ve already become complicit in its story, and Lord of War knows it. So when it introduces us to Yuri moments later, who unapologetically relates his mission to sell a gun to every living person on the planet, we know we’re in too deep to turn away now. We, too, have left our moral outrage at the door. Such is the fiendishly clever way in which this movie introduces us to Yuri’s world and gently holds our hand as we cross its threshold.
Lord of War is a pretty broad indictment of a certain class of business, but it also acknowledges that the kinds of folks who can make it in this trade are usually pretty interesting people. And whatever his faults, Yuri is indeed an interesting subject. He’s not a good guy, but he’s a moral half-step above his clients (which counts for something, if not much). He’s also weirdly charismatic, able to convince his brother that their road to perdition is worth traveling, even if such a road never allows all who walk it to survive the trip. And, Yuri is enough of a con man to hoodwink a model into marrying him, build of life of lies around their relationship, and then somehow start to believe the untruths he tells.
There is a strangely compelling magic to seeing Yuri do his thing, no matter how dire or wicked the results of it may be. That may be, at least in part, because Yuri doesn’t take full responsibility for the mayhem he enables. Even when we see that his goods will be used to massacre refugees, the degree to which Yuri knows this should bother him but somehow shakes it off is as fascinating as it is disturbing. It would be one thing for him to simply have no feelings at all. But he does, and somehow manages to shut them off while he’s on the job. The problem is, he’s always on the job
It’s all enough for us to root pretty hard when the story’s antagonist, a dogged Interpol agent who won’t be bought off, sets his sights on Yuri. Their game of cat and mouse is fun to watch, especially when we know how stories like this always end: with a guy like Yuri in cuffs. So when the movie’s moment of truth arrives during Yuri’s police interrogation, what we think is going to happen and what actually happens are two very different things. And as we reel from that final sting, we are left with a parting gift:enough knowledge to know that everybody in the audience is part of the problem, and that if we’re still angry at how this thing ended, then maybe we’re getting angry at the wrong thing. Yuri’s kind of evil is a symptom of a much worse disease–the kind of disease to which people only think they’re immune. Nobody’s immune to war, unless, maybe, if you’re the one selling it.