Call it moxie, hubris or plain old bad decision-making, but director Ridley Scott has attempted to do something no one else has been able to thus far: make a film focusing on the situation in Iraq and the war on terror palatable to the general moviegoing public. And he almost succeeded with Body of Lies, even if talking dogs and lurching horrors has kept the film out of the top box-office spot.
For the longest time, Scott has struck me as a director who isn’t a filmmaker, but rather a man who makes movies. Sure, he’s definitely slick and professional behind the camera, but when I think of a Ridley Scott picture, no distinct style or modus operandi sticks out in my mind. He makes Hollywood movies very well, but has managed to create a weighty reputation based around a couple of nearly 30-year-old sci-fi flicks and the public’s ability to forget stuff like A Good Year (2006) or Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
While I’m certainly in the minority in this opinion, I make the distinction because what works for Body of Lies lies in its ability to entertain without the heavy-handed politicking that has seemingly handcuffed other films dealing with the same subjects. Unfortunately, this just happens to be a double-edged sword, since while the movie works as entertainment, it inevitably feels too insubstantial to transcend its generic role as a basic action thriller.
Patrick Monahan’s (The Departed) script intertwines CIA agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), his dealings with the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong, Babylon A.D.), and the complications created by Roger’s boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, who packed on quite a bit of weight for the role). All of these machinations are in the name of capturing a mysterious terrorist mastermind (Alon Abutbul, Munich) who refuses to come out and play. This is all sandwiched in between a heavy dose of gunplay and explosions, lending to the feeling that Ridley is channeling his brother Tony. And while the movie’s often clever enough (the idea of Ed on his cell phone “saving civilization,” while taking his kids to school or attending his daughter’s soccer games is a nice touch), it’s still your basic globetrotting espionage package wrapped up in a smattering of gloss.
Since the movie is called Body of Lies it’s easy to guess that the plot is predicated on the art of deception, especially since the film fancies itself as a bit of a spy yarn. At the same time, the film is carried by the interactions of its characters and the snags this creates—from Roger’s dedication to his work to Hani’s sense of honor to Ed’s constant interference in the name of doing what’s right for America. It’s all an attempt at a thinking-man’s action flick, with the principal idea being that America’s bureaucracy (and by extension, the American people) has no idea what’s really going down in Iraq since it’s not there. Oh, and there’s also the overriding concept that “war is hell” stuck in the cracks between shoot-outs.
The only reason it all meshes is due to the film’s performances. DiCaprio is as dependable as ever, and Crowe once again (after last year’s 3:10 to Yuma) shows that he seems finally to be working for his reputation. Down the line, there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, take for example Simon McBurney (The Duchess) who manages to stand out in a generally underused, thankless role.
But in the end, Scott’s high-mindedness isn’t quite enough to lift Body of Lies out of its popcorn-movie ties. Most of this is due to a script that relies too much on an undercooked romance that yearns for an emotional believability it doesn’t deserve and a climax that doesn’t quite add up. This doesn’t keep the film from being engaging, but it does prevent it from reaching the sometimes deeper, loftier goals the film strives for. Rated R for strong violence, including some torture, and for language throughout.