Ridley Scott directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in a big-budget action epic — it’s gotta be a surefire box-office phenomenon, right? Nine times out of 10, probably — but unfortunately for Scott, DiCaprio, and Crowe, not to mention the folks at Warners, last year’s Body of Lies proved the exception, landing with a thud behind Beverly Hills Chihuahua and only earning back its $70 million budget with its overseas grosses. Why? It’s about the war, stupid — specifically, the War on Terror, which has proven to be commercial poison for a long list of movies that includes In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss.
It would be nice if I could tell you that Body of Lies didn’t deserve its fate, and that it was better than your average explosions-in-the-desert thriller, but I can’t; really, at bottom, it’s everything you’d expect from Ridley Scott — an intricate, moderately paced, old-fashioned espionage flick, with the same slick cinematography and beautiful shots of stuff blowing up you’ve seen in action movies for the last 25 years. This sets it apart from the rest of the Iraq-inspired movies of the last few years, insofar as it’s got an old-school ’80s setup lurking beneath its ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, but ultimately, neither Scott nor screenwriter William Monahan (who adapted the David Ignatius novel) can come up with a movie that really works, either as an action thriller or a political statement.
It isn’t for lack of pedigree. In DiCaprio and Crowe, Scott has two of the more capable leads he could have asked for, but the material doesn’t play to their strengths — DiCaprio, for starters, is never all that believable as Roger Ferris, the globetrotting CIA agent who understands the Arab world better than his oily boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe). Farris is a sensitive, morally conflicted action hero — sort of a cross between, say, Alan Alda and Sly Stallone — the type of character who’s delivering heavy-handed diatribes against the American execution of the war when he isn’t running from explosions or getting into alley fights. He’s a rather transparent vehicle for the movie’s message, in other words, and in order to deliver it successfully, he needed to be played sensitively — in other words, certainly not with the silly drawl DiCaprio gives him. It’s enough to take you out of the movie during some of its most crucial moments, which is a shame, because by combining good old-fashioned action with current events, Body of Lies had the potential to be something special.
You get glimpses of that potential during Body‘s two-hour-plus running time, such as the sequence when the aftermath of a botched operation leaves Farris picking his former partner’s bone fragments out of his skin, or the series of plot twists that could have culminated in something other than a laughably transparent equivocation of CIA renditions with videotaped beheadings (one which, sadly, doesn’t even have the guts to follow through). It’s more of a disappointing movie than a bad one, and it does have some profound things to say about the way we’ve continually botched our involvement in the Middle East — as well as the importance of friendship — but because it’s attempting to speak to actual events, and ones that are still transpiring, its deficiencies are more deeply felt. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Body of Lies is that nobody’s really making movies like this anymore, and if you’ve got a thirst for action and espionage with a pre-Bourne Identity flavor, this does a fair-to-middling job of quenching it. There’s a classic movie in this horrible war, and eventually, some filmmaker’s going to find it, but Body of Lies isn’t it.