When looking back at great director – actor relationships it’s safe to comment that most often directors typecast their favorite stars time and time again. For example in the twenty or so films John Ford and John Wayne collaborated on the actor was never required to stray too far from his heroic cowboy persona. Martin Scorese and Robert De Niro have shaken things up a bit more in their eight movies together, but their most successful outings have usually involved wise guys and crime. The same can’t be said of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. Since their first teaming, the sword and sandal epic Gladiator, the pair have made three more films, a romantic comedy called A Good Year, American Gangster, a true life crime drama, and their latest, a contemporary spy thriller titled Body of Lies. It’s a diverse body of work that defies the usual typecasting of actors by directors.
Crowe plays Ed Hoffman, a manipulative CIA puppet master, who sends his top field operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) to Jordan to locate a high-ranking terrorist named Al-Saleem. On the ground in the Middle East Ferris is helped in his mission by Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) the head of Jordan’s secret service leading to a cultural, moral and operational battle between the three powerful men.
Based on Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’s 2007 novel Body of Lies the film is an echo of the great political intrigue movies of the Nixon-era like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. It is essentially a convoluted Cold War story of dishonesty, game playing and loyalty filtered through a post 9/11 global reality. Its plot and deceit machinations are as twisted as a winding mountain road, so step out for a quick trip to the bathroom or to reload on popcorn at your own risk. You could have trouble catching up when you come back. Those willing to follow along, however, will find much here to like.
Key to the film’s success is the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, the former child star who in recent years has gone from strength to strength. His work here and in movies like Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator is almost enough to make me forgive him for his brief, but indelibly stamped time as Hollywood’s ubiquitous teen matinee idol. As Roger Ferris he convincingly speaks Arabic and has the grit to make the character believable.
Crowe also fares well, although his role is less showy. As the CIA mastermind he is stationed in the US and as such, his role is mostly comprised of barking orders into a cell phone. It’s a challenging part to pull off convincingly and keep entertaining, but Crowe adds some unexpected humor into the generally grim proceedings. In the two or three brief scenes the two actors share they display great chemistry, suggesting that they would make a great pairing in film that gives them more of a chance to play off one another.
Body of Lies features director Scott’s trademarked high visual style, has edge-of-your-seat action scenes and a smarter-than-usual take on the culture of disinformation and ever-shifting alliances that characterizes Middle Eastern covert operations. More interesting than that—and perhaps more surprising, given that it is an American film about the Middle East—it avoids making moral judgments or taking sides, preferring to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.
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