CINEMA: Lies And The Lying Liars That Tell Them

body_of_lies.jpgBODY OF LIES (2008, directed by Ridley Scott, 128 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Starting with a minor quibble, what is up with the title of this latest action thriller from director Ridley Scott, Body of Lies?  While Leonardo DiCaprio plays a wily C.I.A. agent gallivanting around the Middle East on the hunt for terrorists, the plot never pivots around bodies, lies nor a body of lies.  It is as if Warner Brothers used a title generating computer program to spit out vaguely legalistic titles and viola, “Body of Lies” was spit out.  All who agreed said “Aye”.

If the title fits it is only because Body of Lies is about as vague with its own politics and ideas, raising an eyebrow over the ethics of torture and surveillance, then changing headlong into its convoluted and conventional action movie cliches.  Although the Iraq War is raging somewhere in the film’s background, the film is onlyglancingly topical, instead sending our intrepid Leonardo to and fro in a overblown spy drama that plays out like a second rate Bond film,shorn of its fun.

I’ll admit, I was confused from the beginning, when Leonardo is seen wandering around modern day Baghdad, a guy from North Carolina inexplicably passing as an Arab with the help of a beard and sunglasses.   He’s under deep cover on the trail of a car bomber who is terrorizing our troops, spurred on by his hard-driving Boss (a fattened-up RussellCrowe) and forced into an uneasy alliance with a Jordanian Intelligence director (a quite good Mark Strong from Syriana).  He also finds time for a little romance with an Iranian refugee (the gorgeous Golshifteh Farahani) while spending most of his time being briefed about various security photos and searching for bad guys in assorted dusty locations.  It is easy to tell the good Arabs from the bad ones here: the bad ones are played by actors of Middle Eastern descent, the good ones are played by more handsome actors of Italian or South American descent.

Recent hits like the Bourne series and Casino Royale have re-set expectations for Hollywood action flicks, demanding a certain visceral momentum while their heroes search for their slippery MacGuffins.  Scott’s blandly professional direction is instead stubbornly old school, wringing tired moments of suspense out of sneaking into hotel rooms and following SUVs as they chase after other SUVs, like he was making the latest Jack Ryan sequel.

If there is anything that makes Body of Lies modern it is the recurring reliance on lingering scenes of torture, which are shoe-horned into current action films like the mandatory car chase scenes in films of the 1970’s.  “Welcome to Guantanamo” says the villain, as he begins the torture of our defiant hero.  Perhaps the filmmakers would like to pretend this is real social commentary, however in half-assed, over-budgeted B-pictures like this, torture is just another way to titillate us and normalize our country’s sins.  Maybe that generic title contains a kernel of meaning after all.

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