By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — “Rendition.” “Redacted.” “The Kingdom.” “In the Valley of Elah.” “Lions for Lambs.”
They’re all movies about the war on terror that nobody has wanted to see, either because the topic is too daunting or too much of a downer, or it’s simply too soon after 9/11.
Soon, you’ll be able to add “Body of Lies” to that list, even though it’s probably the most worthwhile and least preachy of the bunch.
The pieces would all seem to be in place for a compelling take on this complex topic: strong work from acting heavyweights Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; an intricate script from William Monahan, an Academy Award winner for “The Departed”; and the virtuoso visual styling of director Ridley Scott.
Of course, it looks great as it bounces breathlessly between Iraq and Jordan, Qatar and the Netherlands, Dubai and the Virginia suburbs; Scott seamlessly blends footage shot by overhead drones with intense, paranoid sequences from the cramped streets below. And yet the result, with its many explosions and shootouts, too often feels like a generic action picture, albeit one with weightier stuff on its mind. It’s as if Scott & Co. felt they needed to make the material palatable to the widest possible audience by turning it into a familiar genre picture, rather than sticking to their guns and making, well, “Syriana.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whose knowledge of the subject matter would seem to be unimpeachable, “Body of Lies” follows undercover CIA operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), who’s trying to ferret out the mastermind behind a series of anonymous bombings around the world. At the same time, Ferris’ boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe), is running surveillance and plotting strategy from home back in the United States with the help of his ever-present cell-phone headset and laptop.
But despite their shared goals and mutual dependence, Ferris and Hoffman often end up miscommunicating and undermining each other. This becomes especially true when Ferris tries to chat up the smooth Jordanian intelligence chief (Mark Strong, who nearly steals the whole movie), a man who holds Hoffman in disdain and has been reluctant to aid in the CIA’s efforts. Strong’s character, Hani, is impeccably dressed and respectful — he repeatedly refers to Ferris as “My dear,” which seems to be more of a threat than a term of endearment — but that classy demeanor only makes his dark side more frightening.
Somehow, with all his copious free time, Ferris manages to romance Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a pretty, soft-spoken nurse who treats his wounds when he gets particularly banged up during a chase in Amman. It’s obvious what the purpose of the relationship is — it’s a device meant to flesh out Ferris and reveal whatever glimmers of humanity he may have left in this deadly world — but it feels distractingly wedged-in. It’s also a way to inject a rare female figure, but her presence seems like something out of an old-fashioned war movie, so you know it’s only a matter of time before she winds up in some sort of contrived danger, and in need of rescue.
Far more intriguing, and believable, is the relationship between Ferris and Hoffman. It’s a joy to watch DiCaprio and Crowe verbally sparring, even though they infrequently share the same space: Most of their characters’ communication takes place over the phone. DiCaprio is high-strung and arrogant; Crowe is low-key and arrogant and, in typically Method fashion, he put on 50 pounds for the part, and added a Southern drawl. This is his fourth film with Scott, following “Gladiator,” “A Good Year” and “American Gangster.”
Each character thinks that what he’s doing is the right course for the greater good. But when you break down “Body of Lies” to its most fundamental elements, it’s really about disagreeing with your boss. Hoffman gives Ferris an assignment, Ferris carries it out how he sees fit, they clash, then they start all over again.
It’s “Office Space” with more carnage, “9 to 5” where peril is present 24/7. Maybe this topic is relatable after all.
“Body of Lies,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated R for strong violence, including some torture, and for language throughout. Running time: 128 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.