Body of Lies, But No Chills

How can you not go to a Ridley Scott movie? The Director of the all time movie trifecta: The Duelists, Blade Runner, and Alien. Consecutively. In five years.

Just writing the names of those movies sends the same kind of chill up my leg that Chris Matthews experienced hearing Barack Obama speak. That chill chills again at the image that just came to me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator walking through the wheat field, hand trailing and seeing his dead wife and son ahead, alive and waiting for him. Ah, we all said to ourselves: if only that could be true. That death is a gentle good night. Not an end but a beginning.

Only a genius could imagine that and put it on screen. Only a genius can design the worlds of Blade Runner and Alien. Only a genius could make a movie based on a Joseph Conrad tale, The Duelists, in a way that a modern audience could know what it must have been like to experience the Napoleonic Wars. To be there, to feel it, to admire the brilliant look of the age through sets and uniform changes.

For years after seeing The Duelists, in bars with friends, discussing other friends or the personalities of the moment I would end the discussion with Harvey Keitel's great line of dialogue:

"But, he never loved the Emperor!"

I love Ridley Scott movies. But, truth be told, on either side of Gladiator, just a series of paychecks. Well-made, great skill, but few chills contemplating G.I Jane, or Hannibal, or even the recent American Gangster.

Which is why I sat eagerly in the dark at my local multiplex awaiting his new movie, Body of Lies. Alas, alack, eager anticipation thwarted, some thrills but no chills appeared on screen.

Body of Lies follows a number of movies set in and around our post 9/11 Middle East activities that seem overdone, frantic and political. Middle East movies have not proved successful, artistically or financially. If Ridley Scott misfires on the Middle East, it must mean that the wounds are too raw, the actions depicted so close to real events, that such a movie is still beyond even the very best.

But it is a bargain. A movie bargain at that. Attempting multiple plots to touch the touch points of the dramas and controversies of Iraq/militant Islam/America. The attempt makes this film a number of movies in one. There's a beginning about Americans torturing a prisoner until he dies. Who? Why? When? Where? Why is Leonardo di Caprio there? Then the recruiting of an agent, complete with Hollywood's favorite trope of American technology: the eye in the sky that sees all. Well almost all: hint to terrorists...the billion-dollar technology can be defeated by dust. Who knew?

There's a movie about the familiar bureaucratic squabbles attending every movie about the CIA. There's the love story, improbable, politically correct, arch, stilted, used as a deus ex machina for a number of more Why's?

The viewer is in awe of the professionalism of camera, lights and action, but in awk as to what is going on. A spy movie. A topical, big budget, hi-tech, full of weaponry spy movie. A movie throwing any coherent plot to the wind and substituting showy multi-stranded complexity. I guessed the director hoped viewers would concentrate on figuring out the roots of the lead actors' accents rather than plot holes bigger than those associated with war-run-up WMDs.

Russell Crowe, channeling P.S. Hoffman's Gust Avrakotos (Charlie Wilson's War), on an unlimited minutes cell phone package, willing to discuss the most secret of state secrets at soccer games and while house dad-ing. Holding the microphone of his hands-free device for emphasis, he tries to control his rogue agent (aren't all CIA agents in movies 'rogue' agents?). This rogue played by Leonardo di Caprio, still in character from Blood Diamond in all but accent. The Afrikaans replaced by something Afrikaans-ish but not easily identifiable by this hearer. An accent that comes and goes as rapidly as the locations shift. This movie may be the record holder for place name signs underlayed with portentous music. Amman, Jordan, music fit for Ben-Hur...CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, music fit for the second coming.

I hesitate to give Leonardo career advice, but if I did, I would suggest his next roll not mandate a sweaty face, or baseball caps, and, this is a must: change the beard.

I've been told I am being a bit harsh so far. So, lets give credit where credit is due: lots of great action, high body count, great Arab actors capturing the acting props, great locations, and Russell Crowe so totally inhabiting his rather pudgy character that his immersion giving credence to Robert Downey's role in the great Tropic Thunder.

At the end, lest anyone be encouraged by the stoic bravery exhibited by Leonardo's CIA agent at the why oh why ending... the hammer of West Hollywood moral equivalence from the Osama stand in to placate the after premier cocktail party set. Of the four or five movies within this movie, there are good parts in all. But, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts.