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Body of Lies   C

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan (based on the novel by David Ignatius)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney.

Review by Rob Vaux

When your film has nothing new to say, it sometimes helps to find a sexy way of saying it. And few directors can elevate style into substance better than Ridley Scott. So when Body of Lies purports to cover the ins and outs of the war on terror, we can be forgiven for accepting it as an amusing little potboiler rather than an incendiary exposé of the U.S. intelligence service. Unfortunately, it doesn't do so well as an amusing little potboiler either. It's basically just an excuse for Leonardo DiCaprio to play Jason Bourne while Scott once again turns his technical expertise towards making Morocco look pretty.

The gist of the problem is that, while the film tries hard to sell us on its cutting-edge status, it feels distressingly stale. Scott cuts back and forth between views from seemingly omniscient high-tech satellite cameras and the grungy Third World below them where nothing they see is truly as it appears. It quietly champions the brick-and-mortar approach to the spy game, placing great value on the right man in the right place and dismissing the belief that nifty gadgets can make up for a lack of ground game. Washington's ineffectual arrogance coalesces in the form of Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) -- a corpulent spook sporting an omnipresent ear bud and a folksy way of telling people to jump when he says "frog." (He even speaks with an East Texas accent, to make sure we don't miss the point.) His man in Amman is Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), equally cocky but infinitely more cognizant of the cold, hard realities of the Middle East. They're both seeking a standard-issue terrorist mastermind (Alon Abutbul), but soon find themselves working at cross purposes. Hoffman's heavy-handedness is backed up by the sort of faux Beltway wisdom that gets good men killed. Ferris is acutely aware that he could be one of those men, and struggles to meet his objectives despite the fact that his boss may be lying to his face.

Scott is an unparalleled visual storyteller, and Body of Lies works best with the brief, beautiful encapsulation of its key ideas. Ferris periodically glares skyward while dealing with various local scumbags, knowing that Big Brother is watching and not at all comforted by the fact. His terrorist foes have plenty of tricks as well, topped by a fiendishly clever shell game involving four trucks and a cloud of dust which neatly summarizes how guerrilla insurgents can defy the grandest of empires. But despite such flourishes, the collective result is still a big "So what?" The notion that espionage work is a hall of mirrors was old when Joseph Conrad wrote about it a century ago, and no thinking adult can possibly be shocked by the thought of Washington inadvertently enabling the very enemy it wants to destroy.

Body of Lies suffers on more superficial levels as well. Stock plot contrivances such as Ferris's romance with a pretty Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) undermine its stabs at stark realism, and while Scott gussies them up with plenty of bells and whistles, his imagery only fitfully achieves the graphic impact shared by all his best work. Crowe seems to be here largely as a favor to the director, and though DiCaprio inhabits his part completely, the script's attempts at lending him some depth feel unduly artificial.

The film suffers further by keeping its biggest asset a tier below the stars. As the silky-smooth head of Jordanian intelligence, British actor Mark Strong absolutely steals the show. His hard-nosed street smarts are masked behind elegant clothing and cultured etiquette, forming an obvious contrast with Hoffman's bull-in-a-china-shop approach. He becomes the catalyst for the two Americans' unspoken power struggle, but he is far from a hapless pawn and his quiet admonitions ("Never lie to me," he warns Ferris early on) speak to fierce convictions maintained amid the dirty work he has to do. Without him, Body of Lies would be totally sunk. As it is, he injects some welcome life into the proceedings, and keeps the audience engaged where a weaker performance would send them streaming to the exits.

Beyond that, the film flirts with adequacy solely because talking Chihuahuas seem to be its only competition at the moment. That Scott has been better -- a lot better -- should come as no surprise, but even his most mediocre films set the bar fairly high, and Body of Lies just doesn't have what it takes to meet it. Most of its failures can be chalked up to a late arrival at the dance: though its source novel was only published last year, it already feels out of date. The remainder succumbs to big-studio formula, which Scott has often embraced yet still periodically finds ways to subvert. This effort probably won't be counted among them. Had it come from a lesser director, it might not be judged so harshly, but neither would it have felt as disappointing.

Review published 10.10.2008.

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