Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.19: Ridley Scott's Body of Lies

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 55 (B-)

Body of Lies is a perfectly OK spy movie. It features solid performances, a passable script, and reasonably well-directed action sequences. Why, then, is it such an unsatisfactory movie? The problem isn’t just that it doesn’t stand out from other spy thrillers of the era. The problem is that it wasn’t directed by some nobody Hollywood action director; it was directed by Ridley Scott, a master filmmaker whose films in the past, even at their weakest, often features unforgettable sequences, and Body of Lies is forgettable above all else.

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a spy in the Middle East working on bringing down terrorist Al-Saleem. Ferris’ boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe in his fourth film with Scott) is a blustery CIA man using questionable tactics in the War on Terror. When Ferris gets in the good grace with Jordanian Intelligence head Hani-Salaam (Mark Strong), he finds assistance tracking down Al-Saleem. But things get complicated when he falls for a pretty girl in Jordan, and Ferris soon doubts who he can really trust in a game of political intrigue.

Say something for Body of Lies: it’s slightly more distinctive looking than American Gangster. Scott’s atmospheric lighting touches come into play a bit more often than they did in his previous film, almost by necessity considering the absence of artificial light in most of the film’s locations. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t have any of the magnetism of Scott’s best films (even the lightning-quick Black Hawk Down featured some truly hypnotic moments). Scott is a terrific craftsman, but his craftsmanship seems to be mostly on cruise-control in this workmanlike film.

The cast, as with American Gangster, is solid. Oscar Isaac makes a good impression as a doomed associate of DiCaprio’s, while Mark Strong sells the high-class arrogance of Hani-Salaam (his frequent pronouncement of “my dear” is a nice touch). The real scene-stealer in Body of Lies, however, is Crowe in a juicy supporting role that’s his best non-Gladiator work with Scott. Like Strong’s character, the man is arrogant, but it’s a more easygoing arrogance of a man who knows he’s in control and doesn’t need to be in shape or wield a gun to know it. Whenever Crowe talks down to Hani or convinces Ferris to do something terrible, the film lights up.

DiCaprio, unfortunately, overplays his part as Roger Ferris. In all fairness, it’s hard for him to grab onto much when the character basically feels like a retread of Billy Costigan in The Departed (also written by William Monahan), nor does the script give him the necessary reflectiveness on his morally ambiguous deeds except in a few unconvincing scenes. It doesn’t help that he’s given an unconvincing, unnecessary love interest. Still, DiCaprio doesn’t sell the existential dread of the character nearly as well as he has in other films (The Departed, Shutter Island, Inception).

The film is a bit of a continuation of screenwriter William Monahan’s interest in political and moral ambiguity in both religious conflict (as in the superior Kingdom of Heaven) and modern technological war on crime/terror (The Departed). But neither Monahan nor Scott explore much of what these webs of lies and secrecies mean, aside from fairly vague pronouncements about untrustworthy governments. At the end of the day, it’s nothing that the Bourne movies or other spy thrillers haven’t done before, and better. Body of Lies feels like every spy movie ever made. Coming from two major talents like Scott and Monahan, that’s a damn shame.

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