It’s a classic American success story. An immigrant with a dream and a vision works hard and becomes wealthy and successful. He marries the girl he fell in love with at age 10 and they and their son live in a beautiful apartment in New York, on top of the world. Unfortunately, all of this is built on selling hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal weapons to the very last people in the world we would trust with a water pistol. “There are 550 million firearms — one for every 12 people on the plant,” he tells us. “The only question is: how do we arm the other eleven?”
Nicolas Cage is Yuri Orlav, who moved from the Soviet Union to New York’s “Little Odessa” with his parents when he was a boy. They pretended to be Jewish to be allowed to emigrate and his father got so into it that he attends services at the local synagogue. Yuri’s brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) puts a “Beware of the Dog” poster in the kitchen of the family’s restaurant. They have no pet — it means “beware of the dog in me.” Yuri asks Vitaly to help him in his purchase and sale of illegal arms, because he is the only one Yuri trusts. They agree to be “brothers in arms.”
Yuri has good luck and good timing. He arrives on the scene just as the market for illegal guns and other weapons is heating up. He picks up weapons abandoned by the US because it is cheaper to leave them behind than to ship them.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, almost all of its stockpile of arms goes to Yuri and his competition, due to corruption and neglect. “Those who know [about the illegal sales] don’t care and those who care don’t know.” Yuri is selling Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades, and bombs into eight of the world’s top ten war zones. He arranges to meet the successful model he has loved from afar since he was a child, and they get married and have a baby. They live in a beautiful apartment and have plenty of money. If Yuri thinks about what people do with what he is selling, it is just to “hope they miss.” So he can sell them some more.
After all, he says, “guns and tobacco kill more people. At least mine has a safety.”
Then things begin to go wrong. In the illegal arms business, neither the competitors nor the customers play by the rules.
This is a classic hubris rise-and-fall story, chillingly real, contemporary, and very scary. Cage is perfectly cast — the arms dealer as rock star — and Leto delivers a sensitive performance as the volatile and vulnerable younger brother.
The movie’s biggest weakness is that it gets so overheated by its message that it gets heavy-handed, especially when Ethan Hawke as an incorruptable federal agent stands in for the screenwriter to remind us of the meaning of what we have just seen. The conclusion is powerful enough to deliver that message without the speeches.
Parents should know that this is a very violent film about arms dealers that makes its points by portraying frequent, brutal, and explicit gun and other weapons-related peril and violence. Characters are wounded and killed. Characters also use very strong language, drink, smoke, use and sell drugs, and one develops a substance abuse problem. The movie includes explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity, adultery, prostitutes, and group sex.
Families who see this movie should talk about how they can learn more about illegal arms dealers and the challenges of dealing with them under international law. They should also look into the movie’s statement about the role that governments, incuding the US, play in providing weapons to other countries.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Traffic, Goodfellas, and Blow.