by Jeff Meyers
Ridley Scott doesn't care. Not really. The esteemed director is an undeniable stylist and consummate craftsman, but looking over his impressive filmography you'd be hard-pressed to figure out what the man believes. Scott's always-arresting visuals avoid bold statements or profound subtext in favor of aesthetics. His movies are neither politically nor thematically ambitious, paying careful attention to the entertainment side of Hollywood.
Don't take that wrong; there's no sin in wanting to please your audience. Scott delivers, more often than not, with intelligence and panache, and even when tackling sophisticated material like Thelma and Louise or Blade Runner, his surface-mostly approach actually softens the screenwriter's pretensions.
So, it's no surprise that despite its pedigree, Body of Lies only seems to be more than it is. Based on veteran journalist and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' 2007 novel about a CIA operative working in the Middle East, the film bounces with Bourne-like aplomb from Iraq to Jordan to England to Dubai, as Agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) pursues a slippery terrorist leader. Lethal but earnest, Ferris is connected by satellites and surveillance to his guardian dark angel Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a gone-to-pot CIA manipulator who makes life-and-death decisions via cell phone during his kids' soccer game.
Despite its timely political sheen, Scott's movie is little more than a solid B-thriller. Complicated but tightly drawn, it does a good job of illustrating the paradoxes of asymmetrical warfare and the disconnection between those who call the shots and the fighters on the ground. While it brings with it the requisite humorless air — similar to last year's stupider but more energetic The Kingdom — Scott's movie boils down to a heavily armed version of Syriana meets Dilbert, as boss Hoffman repeatedly screws up Ferris' plans because he's an impatient arrogant twit.
Time and again, Hoffman's actions drive home the point that American bureaucrats not only lack the finesse and subtlety to wage war against the enemy, but also refuse to understand their culture or motives. It's a laudable critique of our current efforts in the Middle East, if only the movie didn't emulate those very blind spots. Scott's violence is gripping but sadistically impersonal, as one disposable brown-skinned character is traded for another. Some are killed, others are betrayed, and all seem to come from Muslim central casting. While none of the main characters have much of an inner life, the locals amount to little more than exotic props and moving targets. Only dapper Jordanian intelligence chief Hani comes close to flesh and blood, and that has more to do with Mark Strong's suave performance than anything written into the movie.
William Monahan, who penned The Departed, concocted a competently urgent but ultimately uninspired script. Though he weaves together an intricate globe-hopping plot, he squanders its carefully constructed momentum on a conventional and lackluster third act that relies on Ferris caring for a Jordanian lovely far more than the audience does. Worse, the film's final epiphanies go no deeper than this: Everyone lies.
While DiCaprio is appropriately intense, frantic and determined, he's basically repeating his performance in Blood Diamond. Crowe, on the other hand, perfectly embodies the casual menace of American certainty. Gaining 50 pounds for the role, he brings a Brando-like corpulence to Hoffman, delivering a subversively scathing performance that gives Body of Lies most of its critical meat.
Much like he did in American Gangster, Ridley Scott delivers a slick, mostly entertaining product with A-list actors and little subtext. Unfortunately, without the mesmerizing Denzel Washington to shoulder the lead, his impeccable visual sense and tightly wound action scenes do little to hide the movie's murky self-importance this time around.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.