'Lord of War' a stark window onto a grim trade

Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 8:37 p.m.
Some movies entertain, some movies educate. A vast majority of movies do neither, and a select few do both. When it comes to living a criminal lifestyle, much of my knowledge comes from well-researched movies that go places unavailable to most of us.
For example, everything I ever needed to know about gunrunning I learned from watching "Lord of War." Little tips like ...
- Think locally, but sell guns globally. Only so much money can be made by arming street gangs; the real profit is equipping armies and supplying wars.
- Check your conscience at the door. Thank you very much.
- Most important of all, don't panic. As I see the world as it stands, white men selling guns to black men to kill other black people is not considered especially criminal. Marijuana is bad, cigarettes are bad, underage drinking is bad, but giving African warlords the convenient means to perpetuate genocide is not frowned upon by the U.S. military/industrial complex. It is, in fact, a tradition.
"Lord of War" is an unflinching look at the life of an international arms dealer. He is played by Nicolas Cage, in his best performance since "Adaptation," as a man completely without conscience. He deals in death but protects himself with a completely logical mindset: These people will get guns from somewhere, and what they do with the guns is not his business.
This movie is a great nuts-and-bolts look at a part of the criminal underworld I knew nothing about. "Lord of War" explains how the business works, how sanctions are sidestepped, how the law is avoided via loopholes and outright deception. It's a fascinating world, and it makes a fantastic background for Cage's descent into moral oblivion.
From the opening-credits sequence - which follows a bullet from production line to boat to gun to the skull of an innocent bystander - "Lord of War" barrels over 20 years of international incidents. Cage is the first of a new breed of gunrunner, not beholden to any ethos, and will sell to leftists and rightists. He will sell to anyone.
He explains "I didn't sell to Osama Bin Laden. Not because of moral reasons, but because he was always bouncing checks."
The story is smart - "based on actual events," for whatever that's worth. The characters are sharp and well-played by a solid cast including Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, Eamonn Walker and Bridget Moynahan. And this is the sort of tortured role that best suits Cage.
"Lord of War" is the first great DVD release of 2006. It's entertaining but also educational. But this isn't the first time I've learned the ins and outs of a criminal enterprise from a movie.
Everything I ever needed to know about organized crime I learned from watching "Goodfellas." If you have not seen this film, put down the newspaper at once and go procure a copy for your immediate viewing. Not only is "Goodfellas" the best gangster movie ever made, not only is it one of my five "desert island" movies, but it is also arguably the greatest movie ever made.
It teaches us valuable lessons, such as ...
- "That's what the FBI can never understand - that what Paulie and the organization offer is protection for the kinds of guys who can't go to the cops. They're like the police department for wiseguys." Without question the most accurate and honest description of Mob life ever written.
- Do not crack wise with a short gangster in an expensive suit.
- The mafia has a strict policy about the heritage of its members. To be a "made man," one must be able to trace his blood back to the Old Country. So, if you are not of Italian stock, find an organized crime syndicate that is more closely tied to your ethnicity or national heritage. The Irish and Russian mobs are good choices, and recently I've been hearing good things about the Columbian, Haitian and Japanese mafias.
Everything I ever needed to know about drug dealing I learned by watching "Scarface." Sure, there are scores of other movies that offer nuts-and-bolts insight dealing, but none are quite as informative as this classic. Depending on your personality, "Scarface" is either a cautionary tale or an inspiration.
"Scarface" teaches us ... - Do not get high off your own supply. I cannot stress this enough.
- As a drug dealer, your odds of death-by-chainsaw increase dramatically.
- Cocaine dealers are loco. Yes, Tony Montana is fictional, but he represents a breed of angry, amoral men that live in a world fueled by cocaine, guns and hookers. Which may sound good, until you realize that this world is populated only by guys like Tony Montana.
Everything I ever needed to know about prostitution I learned by watching "Pretty Woman." Of course this movie isn't in the same league as the other movies I've discussed, but that doesn't mean this popular romantic comedy about a hooker and her John doesn't have some interesting points to make about streetwalkers.
- As long as they don't do drugs, hookers are beautiful, sassy, classy ladies who deserve our respect.
- Streetwalking for tricks does not pay very well, but true love is only ever $20 away. Sooner or later, every hooker will meet a handsome, charming rich guy who will sweep them off to lives of bubble baths and polo.
- Being a hooker is hard, but it pays off richly. Anything else you may hear is just typical, liberal-media, bleeding-heart propaganda.
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