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BODY OF LIES (director: Ridley Scott; screenwriters: William Monahan /based on the novel by David Ignatius; cinematographer: Alexander Witt; editor: Pietro Scalia; music: Marc Streitenfeld; cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Roger Ferris), Russell Crowe (Ed Hoffman), Mark Strong (Hani Pasha), Golshifteh Farahani (Aisha), Oscar Isaac (Bassam), Simon McBurney (Garland), Alon Aboutboul (Al-Saleem), Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki), Kais Nashif (Mustafa Karami), Jameel Khoury (Marwan), Lubna Azabal (Aisha’s Sister Cala); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Donald De Line/Ridley Scott; Warner Brothers; 2008)
“There always seems to be a gunfight, torture, or fireball explosion to keep you mindlessly entertained.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

No surprise here, it’s another jejune Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”/”American Gangster “/”Black Hawk Down”) directed lightweight action pic that aims for surface thrills in lieu of ideas, comes to no clear point and offers a host of characters who are difficult to care about unless you dig people who lie or are in denial about what they are all about. It’s based on the 2007 novel by David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, and is conventionally adapted to the screen by William Monahan.

Wily, high-strung, earnest, Arabic speaking CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), stationed in the Middle East, is assigned by his cunning, untrustworthy and pragmatic immediate boss, the chubby, crude and antagonistic self-satisfied Washington-based desk-warrior Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who skirts the law in his zeal to defend national security, to track down Islamic terrorists involved in the recent bombings of civilians and to possibly prevent another bombing. Ed’s self-righteous, cynical philosophy is that the ends justify the means and that no one is innocent. The hands on always carb hungry boss keeps regular tabs on his field agents by satellite and the laptop, and even by cellphone while tending to personal business such as taking his son to school or his daughter to a soccer game. Rewarded with a promotion as the Agency’s top dog in Jordan (though still stationed at Langley), the gung-ho workaholic Ed compromises his relationship with the suave but brutal Jordanian intelligence head Hani (Mark Strong, British actor) when he tries to snatch his Arabic operative informer Karami to work for the CIA. Hani is all for the partnership with the Americans, but tells Ferris it’s over if he lies to him. Ferris doesn’t tell Hani that he concocted a plan to nab one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, the Islamic extremist mastermind Al-Saleeem (Alon Aboutboul, an Israeli actor), linked to a rash of suicide bombings in Europe. Since the terrorists are aware that the CIA can track them through cellphones, they have ceased their chatter. Thereby the resourceful Ed has the CIA contracted computer genius Garland (Simon McBurney) create a phony competing terrorist organization and make an innocent minor terrorist figure, a pious Muslim more interested in the money than the cause, a successful Dubai architect (Ali Suliman), the unwitting head. With that, Ferris finds his credibility is now questioned by Hani, since the partner was left out in the cold and discovers the truth the hard way. Ferris has also now placed the lives of his friends and colleagues at risk. When Ferris goes to an Amman clinic for rabies shots, he’s attracted to beautiful Iranian nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) and she invites him to dinner to meet her older sister for approval to date. Soon the innocent nurse becomes part of the political intrigue.

What it all amounts to, is the filmmaker telling us the agents on the ground know more about what’s going down with the terrorists than their asshole superiors in Washington and that the Washington bureaucrats are mostly motivated by political concerns and blind personal ambitions. In other words, the War on Terror is being messed up by lies told by the so-called good guys, that the no-nothing Washington bureaucrats are inept, and the ones best suited for spy work, the risk-taking field operatives, are being left in the lurch by the incompetents who only talk a good game.

The plot-heavy film throws together too many half-baked ideas, offers mostly clunky ideology as readily as one is served cous cous in a Middle East restaurant and does not have the conviction to see things clearly through that it brings up about the conflicted War on Terrorism, as Scott can’t decide just where he’s going with this overlong and overstuffed topical thriller. It just moves along from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Dubai, England, Amsterdam, Washington D.C. and Langley, and there always seems to be a gunfight, torture, or fireball explosion to keep you mindlessly entertained.

Though weak on political analysis, the loud explosions should keep you awake. There’s also a picture stealing catchy performance by Mark Strong, a winsome sweet one by Golshifteh Farahani, a diverting twisty intense one by a bearded DiCaprio and a creepy unfunny comic relief one by Crowe (who put on some 50 pounds to play the supporting part of a dirtbag CIA bigwig and sports a strong Arkansas accent). It’s a war pic for our times, that rails against lies but only lies to us about what it believes (which could be part of its cynical theme, of not to trust anyone). It serves up cyberspace as the battlefield of the New World. But don’t expect too much more than good location shots, good action sequences and a well-crafted film (which makes it entertaining enough for someone like me, who never expected much more). Just don’t ask me what the hero actually believes in or what the film was really trying to say, as I’m left with the impression that Ferris is willing to chuck his career more for a hotty nurse than over a political belief and that Ed, the film’s heavy, the manipulative opposite of Ferris, merely reflects a simplistic superpower attitude that the Middle East is a scummy place that just happens to be valuable because it has oil but otherwise is a place that America should dump on.

REVIEWED ON 10/16/2008 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”