It’s sadly appropriate that Body of Lies’ epigram comes from a W.H. Auden poem the late writer counted among those he’s ashamed to have written.
To be fair, Lies isn’t so dreary that co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan will seek to scratch it from their resumes. But it is more disappointing, disposable and, shockingly, boring than any of that quartet’s involvement would imply.
There is nothing indicting, inciting or exciting in this hollow shell game of power and control that masquerades as a prestige project with something important to say.
At 70, Scott still conceives and executes action sequences with a sharpshooter’s precision, and Lies again finds him atop his spatial game. You’ll always know what’s going on. You just won’t care.
For a director who excels at reserving violence until its greatest impact, there’s nothing rattling about bombs, bullets or blunt-force trauma to DiCaprio’s body. Just because DiCaprio gets worked like a speed bag doesn’t mean Scott isn’t pulling the punches he usually packs.
Thankfully, DiCaprio brings out true toughness in another rogue man-as-island role to occasionally rise above the film’s rote routines. Plus, he convincingly dons a Taqiyah and speaks fluent Arabic dialects.
He’s Roger Ferris, a CIA operative running point in the Iraqi field for back-home boss Edward Hoffman (Crowe). Crowe reportedly gained 63 pounds to play this spiky-haired troll – about 1.4 pounds per minute of screen time. And you thought Ho Hos were empty calories.
Crowe’s strange soccer-dad comic relief reflects American gluttony — he often issues orders while slurping cereal in his bathrobe — and it’s funny the first time, but not the fifth. It’s unusually unreliable work from a magnetic actor.
Transferred to Jordan, Ferris tracks terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), assisted by Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), head of Jordanian intelligence.
If looks could shatter kneecaps, Strong would usher in a new era of torture. A genetic cross between Andy Garcia and Sacha Baron Cohen, Strong icily issues steely directives that bring the movie to life. Even Salaam’s appearance is sly – well-manicured and tailored but still with gruff scruff to suggest a rough-stuff side.
Eventually, Ferris and Hoffman devise a plot of international entrapment to draw out al-Saleem – a promising development on which the film morally cops out. It’s all entwined with Ferris falling for an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) – a predictable romance that at least results in a dinner sequence that deftly shifts from cute comedy to caustic commentary about Iran being in U.S. sights.
Every explosion in Lies seems timed to waning interest in the story. At its worst, it’s as fetishistic as Chuck Norris slicing throats. One Amsterdam blast is shown with a fancy CGI shockwave, then again in surveillance-camera silence for no reason.
Using 20 fewer minutes and far less bloat, the lesser-seen really knew when to set off its intellectual, emotional and explosive charges. Lies boils down to bromides (“The world is a lot simpler to put an end to than we think.”)
With 2001’s Black Hawk Down, Scott delivered one of the decade’s finest films about military and government incursion into foreign. Of a divergent political mind, that film was so brilliantly, brutally and hauntingly staged that it was unshakeable.
Lies is just a shopworn tale that lacks either the smarts of Rendition or the sustained tension of The Kingdom. It’s emotionless chaos that has more in common with Collateral Damage than any thought-provoking ideas about collateral damage.