I haven’t liked anything with Nicholas Cage in since (and including) Leaving Las Vegas, and have yet to leave a cinema more peeved at such an utter waste of money and time as that film. Lord of War, in which Cage plays a self-justifying arms dealer, was no exception, though it did have the plus of at least trying to teach its audience a thing or two about the evils of the arms trade. (Oddly enough, even what were surely the most surprising facts about the weapons industry — “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet.” — seem curiously unsurprising, perhaps because I was so prepared to be overawed by the sheer horror of what is so evidently a horrific aspect of human life. But this point is most succinctly, and poignantly, made by the film’s title sequence, where we follow a bullet from manufacture to its ultimate destination in a child’s forehead. Thus, the film’s first few minutes are not only its high point, but pretty much make the rest of it redundant.) Far more interesting would have been some insight into the human side of the equation — what makes an arms dealer do what he does? — but we don’t get that. Instead we get a highly laboured morality tale, as Nicholas Cage’s Yuri Orlov loses all he holds dear in the world (his clichéd addicted-but-beloved brother, his clichéd trophy wife, his clichéd loveable toddler, his clichéd poor parents struggling to make good in a no-good world). Far more interesting, for me, is that Yuri Orlov is one more instance of a rather peculiar archetype that’s been appearing in so many Hollywood films of late: the professional killer as hero.
More and more, assassins are popping up as the heroes of Hollywood films — not as anti-heroes, where the killer may take most of the screen time but we’re still meant to find them despicable, but as the actual heroes, who we’re supposed to admire because of the skill and professionalism with which they carry out their work. There’s Grosse Pointe Blank, for instance, with John Cusak as a super-successful professional killer returning to his home town for a high school reunion. There’s Mr & Mrs Smith, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are a married couple who both carry on secret lives as professional killers. And A History of Violence could well be named as another — a film I found quite disappointing when it tossed aside all the promise of its carefully nuanced first half with a crude action-flick ending and no attempt to deal with its own moral implications.
The formula with this character type is that they always have sharply divided home and work lives. At work, they kill ruthlessly and super-efficiently. But that’s all forgotten the minute they get home, where their families have no clue about daddy’s real line of work. But what happens when the division between work and home breaks down? The family starts to suspect the truth, then someone from daddy’s work pays a casually threatening visit to his home — and suddenly, daddy stands to lose all he holds dear but took too much for granted, blah blah blah. It’s this last point that perhaps points to why this character type is so prevalent. It’s because the professional killer embodies, in exaggerated form, how a lot of people feel about their own lives. At work they have to live by a corporate morality which minimises social responsibility in favour of making money and increasing the organisation’s efficiency whatever the cost (as long as it’s legal). Then they go home and have to lock away all the casual inhumanities of the workplace in some secret inner strongbox so they can try to be a normal human being with not just their family but themselves. But that locked-away part means they can never be a fully real human being, even with their loving family. There’s always an undermining guilt, however muffled. Something has to give. The point about the ruthless professional killer is not so much that they kill other people, as that they slowly kill off their own humanity; when their families discover their true nature and either leave or are taken from them, it’s just an externalisation of the hollowness that was inside them anyway.
With Lord of War, Cage’s character is an arms dealer — not a killer but a facilitator of killings — but his life starts to fall apart when he is forced, for the first time, to face the implications of his work and actually kill someone with one of his own guns. But the film is far more interested in making its (really rather simple and shallowly-put) moral point than in creating a drama (which would have been the way to make its simple moral point really stick), so it seemed too long and by the end of it, I was wandering around doing other things while it was playing on the TV to its predictable conclusion.