Friday, October 10, 2008

From the Archive: "Body of Lies" Film Review

Film Rating: B+

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Body of Lies.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Body of Lies”
Originally published October 10th, 2008

Ridley Scott is one of the most reliable directors out there; he churns out a film every year or two, and if they aren’t masterpieces, they are at least solid, thoughtful pieces of entertainment that always justify the admission price.  Body of Lies is no Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven, or even American Gangster, but it isn’t a bad way to waste a few hours either.

The film’s plot is far too complex and convoluted to describe in any sort of detail (it’s sort of like Burn After Reading only serious), but here’s the CliffNotes version: Leonardo DiCaprio plays CIA Agent Roger Ferris, sent to Jordan to track a high-ranking terrorist who’s been bombing various locations in Europe.  While hunting down the terrorists, he forms an uneasy alliance with the head of Jordan’s covert operations, and has to deal with his manipulative boss at every turn. 

The plot is complex and takes lots of thinking to follow, but faith in the plot is rewarded at each individual payoff, and ultimately, in the finale.  Screenwriter William Monahan has written two of my favorite films of the last few years; Kingdom of Heaven and The Departed, both of which are spectacular examples of what happens when you mix great dialogue, plot, and thematic material.  His script for Lies isn’t as rich with great dialogue, and the theme and message of the movie comes a tad bit too late, but what puts the film on a lower rung than the aforementioned films, for me anyway, is the plot in general.  While the twists and turns are certainly rewarding, the plot they belong to is rather pedestrian, especially for an Iraq film.  A terrorist is blowing stuff up; an agent comes in to stop him.  Yeah.  Been there, done that.

This would definitely be one of the best film’s of the year if it weren’t for the overused ‘investigate-the-terrorist’ plot device, because Lies breaks new ground in both the thriller and the Iraq-war-drama categories many times.  It’s not secret that every film about Iraq in the last few years has either a) sucked, b) bombed or c) both of the above, and the usual answer is C.  The message is always too obvious, not obvious enough, too polarizing, or hidden behind a veil of action and an overabundance of self- righteousness.  Lies avoids all these pitfalls, and when all the various plot threads come together to form the film’s ultimate message, I was deeply satisfied.  This is a moral that (reasonable) people of any political stance can agree upon, and I won’t spoil it here.

And while the film does suffer from the standard “hunt-the-terrorist” story, the way the story is told is creative and fresh.  Everything about the film feels real, from the way the investigation proceeds to the weaponry used to the command structure etc.  It creates a very believable middle-east situation before delivering any messages.  The action scenes are terrific (what else could one expect from Ridley Scott?) and are evenly paced throughout the picture.  The thriller aspect of the film is top-notch, but it can never truly escape the extremely conventional plot setup.    

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best actors working today, and his performance in Body of Lies, while not as extraordinary as his turns in The Aviator or The Departed, is excellent as always.  He perfectly inhabits the mindset of a man whose duty in life is to gain information, avoid corruption and lies at every turn, and who lives in a state of distrust.  As written, the character doesn’t have as much impact as other DiCaprio characters, but that’s no fault of the performance.  Russell Crowe, playing Ed Hoffman, Ferris’ manipulative boss, gained 65 pounds to play the role, but the performance itself doesn’t seem as inspired.  He does a very good job, don’t get me wrong, but he seems, well, bored.  That’s part of the role, but with DiCaprio radiating talent, it seems a little too reserved.  Crowe’s performance at the very end of the film, though, is as extraordinary as DiCaprio’s.  The other notable performance is Mark Strong as Hani Salaam, who does a great job as the head of Jordan’s Covert-ops unit.

Unlike many Iraq-movies, Body of Lies knows what it wants to say and does it well, but also provides the audience with an intriguing, complex plot, epic action scenes, and great performances all around.  The last half-hour is the best part of the film, tying together everything that came before and elevating the film from B- to B+.  This is the kind of film that grows on you as you think about it, and is probably more effective on repeat viewings.  It’s no masterpiece, but it entertains and gives you something to think about, proving that Ridley Scott, as well as the two leads, are some of the most reliable members of Hollywood.

The real question is whether or not Hollywood will finally profit from this darn war with the film.  DiCaprio, Crowe, Scott…it’s safe to say maybe… 

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