OK, I confess: I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on during portions of Body of Lies, a new CIA/War on Terror thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. In fact, there were times when I was full-on blind and confused. But, to director Ridley Scott’s credit, the movie looks good, and DiCaprio is just so cool when he’s full of angst and pissed off. This is the genuine, ultimate Leo-is-pissed-and-he’s-not-going-to-take-it-anymore movie.
First thing I noticed was Leo’s ratty beard. I remember wishing it wasn’t going to look like that for the whole film because I would find it distracting. Then, I found myself trying to work out the intricacies of the plot, and the beard concern moved into the back of my mind. Then, Leo just started yelling and shooting at everybody, and I was having a good time.
As far as I could gather, Leo plays CIA operative Roger Ferris, stationed in the Middle East and looking to smoke out some terrorist leader in Jordan. In order to do this, he has to make nice with a Middle Eastern security head named Hani (Mark Strong, in a smooth, refined performance). Ferris’s commander of sorts is the sinister Ed Hoffman, played hilariously by Russell Crowe. This is Crowe in fat-guy-with-a-gray-wig mode, like his role in Michael Mann’s The Insider.
Right from the start, Ferris is frustrated, and he just gets more irritated as things go along. He has an idea to make up a fake terrorist organization in order to make a crazy terrorist leader named Al-Saleem trip up and come out of hiding. Incompetent and sloppy assistants and a constantly interfering Hoffman lead Ferris to agitation, which means we get Leo yelling and sneering a lot, which equals movie goodness.
Crowe has sinister fun with Hoffman, who spies on Ferris’s whereabouts and actions with satellite cameras. Scott does a beautiful job showing the contrasts in Hoffman’s life. He’s sitting on his boat in the United States, decked out in pajamas and chatting on the phone with Ferris, who is embroiled in major, bloody chaos overseas.
One of the film’s funniest moments comes when Hoffman is having a moment of major urgency with Ferris while taking his little, not-very-amused daughter somewhere in his car. The moment illustrates just how much technology has enabled CIA operatives to be physically hands off, yet very involved.
The film gets a bit conventional in spots. Ferris’s friendship with a local woman (Golshifteh Farahani) feels more like a desperate plot device than essential storytelling. Many of the actors look the same, so there were times when I wasn’t sure who was getting killed or getting chased. It’s one of those movies where you wait urgently for characters to share details after something’s happened, just so there can be some clarification. Sometimes they help out, and sometimes you are left to your own devices.
A big “Boo!” goes out to the film’s near-finale, where a character swoops in to save another character’s ass at the last second. The timing of this moment is ridiculous and hurts the film’s credibility. I’m not saying that the film required a totally bleak ending. I’m just saying that the way the film chooses to avoid that total darkness is overly contrived.
No doubt, Scott is one of the masters when it comes to action scenes. When the bullets, missiles and RPGs fly in this film, it’s exciting stuff.
DiCaprio is good in this sort of role. Ferris is charming, a little sleazy and, yes, angry 90 percent of the time. DiCaprio’s work here is a little like his star turn in Blood Diamond, with a different accent. He brings a nice seriousness to his roles in action movies, even when his facial hair almost gets in the way.