4 December 2008

Body of Lies Review

There's been talk here and there on the Inter-super-highway-thing that Ridley Scott is something of an over-rated director - a director who is all style and no substance, and who struck critical gold with two fantastic scripts back in the late 70s/early 80s and has ridden the horse named Lucky since. There's good points on both sides of that particular little spat, but the problem with Body of Lies, unfortunately, is that Scott has succesfully managed to fuel neither side of the argument.

There's quite a lot going on in the movie, and in all honesty, the plot isn't particularly new or interesting. In fact, 'formulaic' would probably best describe it. This isn't exactly testing scribe William Monahan's abilities, but it's solid for what it is. Basically, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a field agent working in the Middle East, specifically: Jordan. Under the watchful eye of his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), he uncovers information about a major terrorist player named Al-Saleem, and eventually devises a plan that will bring Al-Saleem out into the open. Unfortunately, the plan itself skirts far too close to terrorism in and of itself, and Ferris' ties to his superiors, his Jordanian allies, and even a woman are tested to the extreme.

Despite being one of Crowe's best roles to date - his Ed Hoffman all cocky swagger, bold claims and fast talk - you can't help but feel that Crowe's presence is wholly unneeded at the script level. Do we really need to see him at home, taking his kids to school, telling his Missus that he's 'saving civilization'? It'd've perhaps been far more effective to have him as a faceless voice on the end of a phone, cropping up only sporadically, thus completely disconnecting Ferris from his homeland. It'd also make one scene where Ed turns up unexpectedly slightly more effective than it remains in the final cut.

The necessary fantastic performances are two-fold - first up is DiCaprio, topping his fantastic turn in The Departed. Perhaps the only nit that one might be able to pick is the fact that this is more or less the same character, merely evolved somewhat. But regardless, it shows DiCaprio's continued maturity as an actor, and one can expect nothing but great things from the man in the years to come. The other - perhaps surprisingly so - is Mark Strong as Jordanian intelligence chief Hani Salaam, his a dry, vigorous wit and an deceptively easy smile. Between this and Rocknrolla, it would seem Strong is on his way up the B-list and possibly even into the A before long.

The problem is that this is most certainly Ridley Scott in his 'director for hire' cap, instead of the one proudly branded 'auteur', clearly more focused on making a slick and good-looking final product instead of applying any cinematic heft to it. It's got some fantastic action sequences in it - an infiltration followed by an arresting car chase gets the adrenaline pumping - and whilst they are relatively thin on the ground, the film never feels boring or slow. It never, however, deems to address the war on terror in anything other than a factual way. There are no real conjectures, no hypotheses put forward, just a straightforward 'this is what happens' approach, and seeing as we've been regaled as of late with everything from TV documentaries to the likes of Lions for Lambs regarding the fracas in the middle east, it's nothing we don't know.

The real ace in Scott's Body of Lies deck, however, is towards the end of the film. I won't give away the details of how it precipitates, but you'll have to brace yourself for one of the most visceral and intense torture sequences in recent memory. Better than anything the torture porn genre has offered up...well...ever, this sequence literally had me wincing in my seat. Perhaps it's a cue for Scott to segue his way into the Saw franchise? Perhaps not.

At the end of the day, this is not Scott's most daring or challenging work. It does seem to rely too much on Scott's flashy direction and great central performances - no matter how unneccesary - to give it the crutches it needs to elevate itself from run-of-the-mill spy-flick. But elevate it they do, and this turns into a solid piece of winter entertainment - a thriller that genuinely thrills, and has enough good about it that the bog-standard stuff can be dusted off the shoulders of Sir Ridley's polo shirt.

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