“An Impressive ‘Body’ of Work”
by Scott Mantz
Almost a year after Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” opened to critical and commercial acclaim (grossing more than $130 million domestically), the prolific, 70-year-old British filmmaker returns with “Body of Lies.” It’s a gripping, compelling, action-packed espionage thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even if the super-serious storyline loses some of its credibility with a Hollywood ending that’s a little too old-fashioned for its own good.
But that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise exceptionally made film that finds Scott continuing to challenge himself, his actors (in this case, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe) and – most importantly – his audience. That means “Body of Lies” can be hard to follow and is disturbing at times, thanks to a complex structure and scenes of graphic torture. But that’s the name of the game in the War on Terror, and Scott effectively depicts the environment in the Middle East as one in which no one can be trusted and danger lurks around every corner.
Working with Scott for the first time, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, an intelligence operative working undercover in an effort to expose an emerging terrorist leader. His only help lies with Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a veteran CIA agent who’s pulling the strings from the other end of the phone back home. Ferris tries desperately to maintain his cover during his dangerous pursuit, but as he gets closer to his main target, he begins to suspect that the person he has to trust the most cannot be trusted at all.
The presence of “Departed” players DiCaprio (undercover again) and William Monahan (whose screenplay is adapted from the novel by David Ignatius) may give “Body of Lies” the feel of a sequel to that Best Picture-winner from 2006, but, of course, the two movies are worlds apart – both literally and figuratively. And as Scott has done before with worlds both real (“Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”) and imagined (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”), he gives chaotic detail to the foreboding atmosphere depicted in the Middle East.
But what makes “Body of Lies” really interesting is the intense dynamic between Ferris and Hoffman. Both men are in constant contact with each other, and both are after the same agenda (at least, initially). But their lifestyles couldn’t be any more different. While Ferris lives in deadly surroundings where his cover could be blown at any moment, Hoffman lives in an affluent neighborhood where he tends to his domestic duties. It’s a stark contrast, but it’s also one that brings the danger of the War on Terror way too close to home.
In the past, Leonardo DiCaprio’s boyish appearance made it difficult for him to be taken seriously in some of his post-“Titanic” adult roles (like 2002’s “Gangs of New York” and 2004’s “The Aviator”). But that changed in 2006 with both “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond,” in which he finally seemed to grow into the gritty characters he portrayed so well. The same goes for “Body of Lies,” in which he effectively goes head-to-head with the conniving, suspicious CIA mastermind played by the terrific Russell Crowe (working with Scott for the fourth time).
But after a white-knuckle first hour, DiCaprio’s lonely operative lets his guard down by pursuing an attractive Muslim nurse (played with strength and sensitivity by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). While these moments of tenderness provide a welcome respite from the unrelenting violence, it doesn’t make sense that he would risk so much by being seen in public with her and attracting the attention of just about everybody.
“Body of Lies” may be a tough sell for war-weary moviegoers who didn’t have the stomach for last year’s terror-themed films like “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Kingdom” – all of which underperformed at the box office. There’s no question that “Body” tackles the same issues, but it works better as an action-adventure, thanks to Ridley Scott’s knack for tightening the screws on the intensity. And given how prolific Scott has been lately, I’m sure another impressive addition to his outstanding body of work is right around the corner.