An unconvincing pack of "Lies"

Oct. 13, 2008, midnight | By David Tao | 13 years, 7 months ago

Feeble performances by an all-star cast blow this movie to box-office oblivion

Ever since the beginning of the Iraq War, Hollywood has been searching for ways to profit from Middle East turmoil with rather limited success. Warner Bros., the latest studio to jump on the bandwagon, brings together superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in "Body of Lies," the eponymous film adaptation of David Igantius's 2007 bestseller. Unfortunately for audiences, the movie is low on action and heavy on meaningless dialogue.

CIA agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) pursues elusive terrorist leader Al-Saleem, who is responsible for a string of car bombings across Europe. Monitored via satellite by his bloated, arrogant handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) and assisted on the ground by the enigmatic head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong), Ferris moves from his original posting in Iraq to Jordan, Syria and Turkey as he tortures, lies and schemes his way towards Al-Saleem's location.

On paper, "Body" is a brilliant concept, and even unites a staggering number of Hollywood power players. In addition to performances from DiCaprio and Crowe, the film is both directed and produced by the critically acclaimed Ridley Scott, renowned for his ability to create entrancing productions. Scriptwriter William Monahan, who won an Academy Award for his 2006 adaptation "The Departed", also lends his talent to the script of "Body." Sadly these valuable pieces never blend into a superior film. The first hour of the movie is as plot-less and devoid of action as it is dialogue-heavy. Once a plot manages to take root, Monahan removes the action, lulling viewers to sleep. Just like recent adapted screenplays such as "Eragon" and "21," Monahan's product fails to translate the bestselling quality of its source material to the big screen.

Strong acting can make scripts far worse than Monahan's sound engaging, but the film fails to capitalize on the talent it possesses. After earning an Oscar nomination for his most recent work in "Blood Diamond," DiCaprio gives an unexpectedly feeble and disappointing performance. He looks mildly annoyed for the majority of the film, occasionally expressing full-fledged anger but never reaching introspective, thoughtful or guilty. We hear him voicing his qualms about the unethical practices he's forced to employ as a CIA agent, but he never seems genuinely remorseful about the people he's forced to frame, torture or kill.

Russell Crowe's role as an under-informed bureaucrat is visually top-notch, mainly due to the 63 lbs the actor put on while preparing for the role. Crowe, who hails from Australia, also manages to adopt not only an American accent but also a Southern accent, an achievement for any actor. Crowe lets these accomplishments carry his lazy performance. He maintains a state of near-universal detachment and his character seems unconcerned and nonchalant, even as the standard ultra-nationalist "You're betraying America" rhetoric spews out of his mouth.

Scott too struggles in terms of creative vision. Cinematographically, the film is a collection of stereotypically overused camera angles, including a particularly bad top-down perspective resembling satellite images ripped from Google Maps. This problem is relatively minor compared to the film's lack of a pulse. Monahan's script leaves little room for plot development but Scott tries nevertheless to compensate through excessive movement, jumping from setting to setting like an over-caffeinated schizophrenic and announcing these changes in obnoxiously large white font on a blackened screen.

When this doesn't work, the film attempts to dazzle viewers with a deluge of explosions. The first comes before the title card as terrorists blow themselves up, taking with them a heavily armed SWAT team. The next comes just 20 minutes later as terrorists demolish their safe house after upon discovery by Ferris and his assistant, followed by yet another explosion in a crowded town square in Amsterdam. These sudden bursts of brilliance in an otherwise colorless film serve only to emphasize the lack of character-driven action. DiCaprio blasts terrorists with fervor in two exceptionally shot action scenes that channel Scott's previous hit film, "Black Hawk Down," but flashy explosions are just not enough to win over the hearts and minds of the audience.

Ultimately, the movie suffers from a general lack of inspiration. A great deal more is expected of the film's A-list cast and crew, which possesses a staggering combined total of eight Oscar nominations and two Oscar wins. Instead of groundbreaking new work however, audiences are greeted instead by clichéd rubbish that drowns "Body of Lies" in mediocrity.

Body of Lies (128 minutes) is rated R for strong violence including some torture, and for language throughout. Now playing in theaters everywhere.

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