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Movie Review: Body of Lies

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Body of Lies is perhaps the most consistently solid motion picture of 2008 thus far. It offers great performances, expert direction, and a sense of realism seldom captured in this type of film. It buries us deep into events timely and relevant to real life, so much so that it requires that the viewer pay close attention throughout, but it never loses sight of the importance of it's characters.

Body of Lies is one of those films which appeals to the more intelligent, most likely adult, audiences who are looking for more than just bustling car chases and copious amounts of violence. Although there are a few examples of these elements here and there throughout the film, it is more interested in the goings on between governments, the background intelligence — the “behind the scenes” stuff if you will. The film jumps from location to location pretty flippantly, and thus it requires consistent attention be paid to it in order for it to be understood and followed as intended. This is not a film suitable for bathroom breaks; once someone returns they will no doubt feel a bit lost.

It goes without saying that Ridley Scott is one hell of a talented director. It’s true he’s made his fair share of at best mediocre films over the years (Hannibal or Kingdom of Heaven, anyone?) but even the best directors have a bad day at the office. Body of Lies certainly isn’t one of them as although it's definitely not his best work (it will not go down in history as “all-time great”) it’s still a solid piece of work made by one of the most competent directors around.

The script is penned by William Monahan who wrote The Departed a couple of years ago. With that he used his skill to merge engaging characters with a great crime story and here he does the same in the form of a political thriller. The emphasis in Body of Lies is less on sharp dialogue and watching characters play off of one another and more on a complex and challenging story and simply dropping the characters in the thick of it. Not least of which is DiCaprio’s CIA Agent, Roger Ferris. 

While in Jordan searching for the terrorists behind various bombings around the world, Ferris uncovers a lead which may help him in his assignment .  DiCaprio is in top form, as we’ve become accustomed to from his recent work. It’s perhaps a clichéd line to say now, but he really is one of the best actors around today and it doesn’t look like his talent is diminishing in the slightest, perhaps it’s even improving over time as he gains experience.

Russell Crowe supports DiCaprio here, and he too is excellent. One of the things that you can notice in Crowe’s work is that he puts in his best performances when he roughens up a bit in the looks department. He did it with The Insider (his character here being very reminiscent of that), again with A Beautiful Mind (to some extent anyway), and now here.  This seems true of a lot of actors — when they concentrate less on how they look, they delve more into the character.

Crowe's Ed Hoffman is the observer to DiCaprio’s “action man,” if you will. While DiCaprio is off in the Middle East searching for terrorists and trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not, Crowe is sitting at home on a lawn chair eating cereal.  It’s a strangely fascinating contrast to see as the two of them are presumably seeking to achieve the same goal.

Ably supporting Crowe and DiCaprio is the much underrated Mark Strong (although that’s thankfully beginning to change as we are starting to see him in more and more stuff), who at times almost out-acts the two heavyweights. He’s not likely to be the next A-list leading man, but you can make a hell of a living being a solid, dependable character actor, and Strong looks to be just that.

What’s refreshing to see in Body of Lies is that we’re not steps ahead of the characters. It’s never very clear what’s going to happen, the film is unpredictable, and thus it's all the more rewarding an experience.  It deals with themes and issues which are not only realistic and believable, but also very timely. Its true that there have been more films than could be easily counted since 9/11 about the war on terror and one of the problems many face is that they often come across as convoluted and hard to follow. Many think that just by having tons of information that it will come across as intelligent but it often ends up a mess (Syriana is one of the prime examples of this; talk about convoluted). But not Body of Lies; yes, it’s complex, but creatively so. It’s certainly challenging but also never loses you; as long as you pay attention it works very well.

What is both a strength and a weakness of the film is it’s lack of gung-ho action violence. It’s a strength in the way that it allows Body of Lies to concentrate on other, more important things than just having a car chase for the sake of one. The violence is only used when it’s called for and to further the storyline, which sets it apart from dozens of other films of the genre. However, it’s a weakness because it’s not the most exciting of films and ultimately not the most memorable. A film like The Kingdom, which deals with a lot of the same things as this does, had more action than most of these "war on terror" films put together, and because of that it stuck in the mind long afterwards. But because there’s hardly any in Body of Lies it’s just not memorable; it just won’t be one of those films that will be talked about a month from now, and certainly not by the casual moviegoer. However that’s not to be taken that only action makes a film memorable, sometimes it’s quite the contrary, but in this specific case the piece could have used a bit more oomph in that department.

If you see a trio of names such as Ridley Scott, DiCaprio, and Crowe printed on a movie poster it’s quite unthinkable that you could pass up the chance to see it. Body of Lies delivers on the promises made simply by the talented names involved. It’s nothing exceptional, but never is it anything less than good. It’s complex, intricate, and intelligent escapism for the true film fan rather than the casual viewer.

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