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Up in arms The world is a dangerous place, and the friendly gun dealer makes sure it stays that way

Bullets, bullets and more bullets.

A vast ammo dump covered with them as far as the eye can see. The camera whooshes ecstatically over them in close-up as if they were waves caught by a cinematographer flying over the sea.

Nicolas Cage, in a voiceover, then gleefully tells us what Andrew Niccol's "Lord of War" is about -- the fact that there is one firearm for every 12 people in the world, which is why our story begins with a camera pan over a shining sea of bullets.

Cage plays an international arms dealer, a bigtime merchant of death who can traffic in just about any quantity or commodity that a revolution or murderous regime might need. It's his "success" story we're watching -- from "Little Odessa" in Brighton Beach, 1982, to Park Avenue arts patron soirees -- as a merchandiser of death in the world's hot spots. And "Lord of War" is as boldly brilliant a film as you're likely to see all year, a fast, black comic and wickedly entertaining nightmare about the world of international arms traffic.

Think of Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning "Traffic" about the border-levelling world of drug traffic. Make it about the sales of guns and tanks. Skew the tone of the film to cheery black comic sarcasm and you've got something very rare in this or any movie year -- an absolute original.

That's because this isn't a movie about other movies. Or about careerism. Or fame. Or marketing demographics.

It comes from the world, the one people live in (and where the collapse of Communism flooded the Third World with black market weapons). Its tone isn't all that rare in 20th century literature (see Malaparte and Celine) but is like nothing you'll see in a contemporary American movie. That, I suspect, is why some trade movie critics are having a devil of a time with it. This, for sure, is not how movies generally behave.

And thank heaven for that. The movie, for all its outrage, is weirdly funny, entertaining, moving and in a kind of creative white heat from beginning to end.

And if, like Andrew Niccol, you're writing and directing a movie that doesn't behave the way other movies do, who better to be your misbehaving star than Nicolas Cage, who spends most of the movie with the ebullient cheer of an emcee in some sort of Satanic vaudeville, introducing each new sale of death-dealing weaponry as if they were just the next act?

It's quite a show.

Let's get real here. Audacity counts a lot with me. That's why there's a full four-star array attached to this movie. As I watched it, my eyes flared open and stayed that way as I wondered how on earth it ever got made. The subject matter is troublesome enough in a commercial movie world but to come at it with this sardonically jaunty slant is audacious to the max.

Back to our anti-hero, the happy global death dealer. His family came to Brighton Beach from the Ukraine when he was a child, pretending to be Jewish to fit in. There he saw enough mob homicide growing up to think of "murder as an everyday part of life." So why run away from violence? Why not "run toward" it and make money off it, as any good, well-raised American boy ought to do?

So he does, with all the finagling talent in the world. And brings his semi-druggy little brother (Jared Leto) with him.

He lands Ava the Supermodel to be his ultimate trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan).

What he learns supplying guns to the local gang wars in "Little Odessa" he applies to those overgrown gang wars that are between factions in nations and whole countries. "I was an equal opportunity merchant of death" he confides to us proudly. "I sold to every army but the Salvation Army."

Our boy wears a bullet on a chain around his neck but, by dint of sheer ill-gotten wealth, manages to cut a figure in respectable society anyway.

It may not be entirely true that behind every great fortune is a crime. In his case, though, it couldn't be truer.

While doing business, though, he might be anywhere from his ancestral stomping grounds in the Ukraine (where he hustles his army uncle for some tanks to peddle) to AIDS-infested Africa (where the local pharmaceutical delicacy is cocaine mixed with gunpowder).

Real historical events are carefully woven through the film. While selling his death goods in Monrovia, Liberia, the local strong man watches the O.J. trial and fantasizes about going to Los Angeles and living in Brentwood.

This is the bullet's-eye-view of modern civilization: "they say evil prevails when good men fail to act. What they ought to say is that evil prevails."

Lord of War

Revew: 4 stars (out of 4)

Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan and Ian Holm in Andrew Niccol's sulfurous black comic portrait of an international arms tycoon. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.


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