Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Body of Lies (2008) Review

Body of Lies
An uneven body of work

When you see the production values for Body of Lies you think top notch filmmaking. You have Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe headlining the acting department, two very talented actors capable of elevating material. Ridley Scott is a director who has proven to be skilled at creating intense action scenes, dense worlds, and has tackled modern day war thrillers before (Black Hawk Down). Then there’s William Monahan, writer of Kingdom of Heaven (the director's cut of course) and The Departed, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. It should be a great thriller, right? Well…somewhat.

Plot Synopsis: Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) is an undercover CIA operative that works in the territory around Jordan. In order for Ferris to capture the terrorist Al-Saleem, he enlists the help of not only his boss Ed Hoffman (Crowe) back in America, but also the Head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). Unfortunately, Hoffman and Salaam have different methods of achieving the same goal and on occasion these two styles clash against each other and create more distrust than success. After a botched operation that lands him in the hospital, Ferris soon begins to fall in love with a nurse Aisha. Eventually, Hoffman and Ferris hatch a plan to create a decoy rival terrorist organization that will lure Saleem into the open and expose him.

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Monahan’s script is really a mixed bag in that it’s intelligently written and treats the war on terrorism with respect without resorting to clich├ęs, but on the other hand the actual plot of the movie doesn’t start till the halfway marker. If the rival terrorist plot had been introduced in the beginning of the story, the movie would have been much more interesting because of it. Instead the first hour is comprised of loosely connected operations run by Ferris and Salaam that just don’t hold much dramatic tension. Mostly it’s either Ferris bickering with Hoffman over the cell phone for interfering or some sort of chase scene to spruce things up.

One of the things that the trailers for Body of Lies seemed to indicate was the Ferris and Hoffman would be at odds with each other and that the presence of two Hollywood heavyweights would create great dramatic tension. This turns out to be a missed opportunity since the characters only meet face to face twice and only one brings his A-game. Coming off his critically praised performances in Blood Diamond and The Departed, DiCaprio once again puts on an intense show that displays the frustration and tension that Ferris must put up with everyday. There are times where the actor seems to be channeling Costigan from The Departed but for the most part Ferris is a different character. He may be a determined man, but there’s also a soft side to his personality. Crowe, on the other hand, seems to be on autopilot for most of the film. Aside from him adding on about 50 pounds for the role and being a family man, Hoffman is only mildly interesting. Since he’s mostly hanging out at Langley running “side” operations and talking with Ferris over cell phone, the opportunity for acting sparks to fly dies out. Mark Strong gives a good performance as Salaam, who similar to Ferris gives him a hard edge and dignity while still making him sympathetic and reasonable.

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The character of Aisha, played by Golshifteh Farahani, is an unevenly written character. When she and Ferris are seeing each other, the movie presents some interesting racial tension as we see the world casually watching over the two together in caution and hidden disparagement. Eventually though, we realize that their relationship is merely a Hollywood convention and she becomes a plot device built in order to bring the film to its anti-climatic conclusion.

To Ridley Scott’s credit the technical aspects of the film are once again superb. The world of Jordan is beautifully shot with great desert cinematography and slick visuals with small details that fully flesh out the tense atmosphere. The action scenes, namely a street chase and car chase through the desert, are also very well done with a good intensity level and sharp editing. There’s also a torture scene that occurs near the end of the movie which Scott creates in a chilling and very real manner that eerily mirrors real life videos of captured people. So even in so-so movies, Scott still manages to keep up the good work and deliver an intense directing show.

Had the plot been more fleshed out and extended to fit the running time, Body of Lies could’ve been an intense and interesting war on terror thriller. As it stands, its only half of that promise, with the other half being a dull and meandering set up with a little action here and there to liven it up.

2.5/4

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