For a long time now, I’ve been worried about Nicolas Cage. I’ve always been a fan, all the way back to “Raising Arizona” — all the way back to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” when he wasn’t even “Nicolas Cage.” I thought he richly deserved an Oscar even before his stunning turn as a suicidal drunk in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Given how much I like ol’ Nic, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After he starred in “The Rock,” I told myself that he did it for the money. After “Con Air,” however, I turned into one of those people who thought it was time for the AARF (Academy Award Revocation Force) to pay him a little visit.
But, after a string of action-hero stinkers, who knew that Nicolas Cage still had it in him? His new film, “Lord of War,” is a winner. Subtle, funny, bleak and bloody, it’s a ride through the geopolitical spook house of the last 30 years. More importantly, it’s one man’s road map to hell — a testament to the truth of that adage about swapping your soul for everything you ever wanted.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a second-generation Ukrainian-American who goes from hawking hot pistols to small-time Russian mobsters to selling Russian helicopter gunships and stolen AK-47s on the international stage as one of the world’s largest underground arms dealers. Told in a surprisingly effective series of vignettes that follow Orlov’s rise to black-market power, “Lord of War” is at its heart an absurdist piece, full of strange, ethereal images and scenes that must perfectly capture what it must be like to jettison your most basic moral framework in order to profit. At various times during the film, Orlov chums up to cannibals, snorts a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, rides shotgun in an American muscle car through the streets of a third-world country with two girls in Dallas cowboy cheerleader outfits while their boyfriend/dictator-for-life takes random potshots at his constituents with a gold-plated assault rifle. All the while, Orlov is selling military-grade hardware to anyone with the money: Middle Eastern terrorists, boy-soldiers of Africa, drug cartels of Colombia — often standing by as his clients try out the merchandise on their victims.
Still, thanks mostly to Cage, Orlov is not the amoral death merchant you might assume. Wry, funny and altogether human, he struggles constantly with what he does, especially after the promise of profit draws his brother (Jared Leto) into the fray, with disastrous results. What this all adds up to is a movie that is both incredibly interesting — even blackly comic at times — and yet the chronicle of the way money can lead an average Joe down the path to unspeakable darkness. Given how unappetizing that sounds, the biggest triumph of “Lord of War” and Cage’s performance might be that both make Orlov’s life look so appealing, so adventurous, so fun; something like a cross between James Bond and Jesse James.
Overall, “Lord of War” is a rare thing: a movie with the feel of both a blockbuster and a “message” film. While it might not signal a for-sure return to serious acting for Cage, it is a step in the right direction.
— By David Koon
“The Baxter,” opening Friday at Market Street Cinema, is a charmingly little film in places with some impressive performances from actors rarely seen outside indie films -– Michelle Williams and Justin Theroux, in particular. Its premise had promise, too: A “baxter,” you see, is the name the main character’s grandmother had given to the guy who gets dumped at the altar when the girl’s true love comes in and sweeps her off her feet.
Michael Showalter, a Comedy Central alum, wrote the screenplay and stars. He’s the baxter.
It’s a character that, in some ways, is not much different than “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” also starring and written by a Comedy Central alumnus, Steve Carell. Except, the virgin guy was endearing; Showalter’s baxter is irritating.
We have nice ensemble surrounding Showalter, and the lines are often witty and the comedy subtle, though the pretty Elizabeth Banks isn’t given near as much to work with as the part she chewed up in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” The film opens with Banks’ Caroline Swann, a rich bitch, and Showalter’s Elliot Sherman, a CPA, at the altar when Caroline’s longtime past love returns at the “let him speak now …” part.
Frankly, you’re left wondering why in the heck she’s with Elliot in the first place.
Elliot then tells the how-we-got-here in flashback, first meeting the perky secretary temp Cecil Mills (Williams) and bells going off, and Caroline moments later walking into his office and his life. Then, as the wedding is approaching, Elliot learns about the past Caroline has forgot to tell him, namely about high school beau Bradley Lake (Theroux).
Maybe you’re like us and have always wondered what would have happened to “the baxter” in other movies, like “The Graduate.” The film is set up to be a comedy romp of years gone by, and it almost works, except for two things: There is no surprise in the story, and Showalter gives us a character we couldn’t care less about. He’s whiny and nasally, everything you wouldn’t wish on Caroline or Cecil. The cute Cecil has a decent boyfriend at her disposal, but he doesn’t go hear her sing at clubs, and apparently she’s smitten by Showalter. Why? We’re never really told. Elliot is a poor man’s Bill Pullman with allergies out the wazoo, displaying no cool, no worldly intelligence, no nothing; he’s just dull. There are plenty of reasons why he should always remain the baxter and NEVER get the girl.
Stay through the credits, as a couple of interesting side points surface. The music is good, and the indie feel is prevalent throughout. There’s just something missing here that wasn’t missing in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”
— By Jim Harris