October 10, 2008

REVIEW: Body of Lies (C+)

"Trust no one. Deceive everyone.," declares the official tagline for Ridley Scott's Body of Lies. The phrasing is an appropriate metaphor for the movie in two ways: 1.) the wording is as unoriginal and bland as the story itself, and 2.) it describes the internal marketing strategy for this movie at Warner Bros., since they're clearly trying to deceive us into thinking we're getting something richer than the action-packed trailer suggests.

It was only last April that Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's bestselling novel of the same name was released. Filming on Body of Lies began in September. How did they do that, and what was the rush anyway? We're guaranteed years more of these movies about Iraq and the "War on Terror" (a veritable genre is developing), so what was accomplished by fast-tracking this one for an October surprise?

As it happens, the biggest surprise in Body of Lies is the fact that it's not a better movie. Sir Ridley Scott's track record has been shaky in the last few years (though I don't think either American Gangster nor A Good Year were as outright terrible as some people think), but this is still a director who helmed a Best Picture winner within the last decade (not to mention Blade Runner decades ago), so the name automatically carries a fairly high level of expectation. Body of Lies marks the third time in as many years Scott has directed Russell Crowe, and the first time he's worked with the reliably great Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond, The Departed).

Unfortunately, this truly A-list trio has produced a truly C-grade movie. Body of Lies is admittedly better than several of its cousins (The Kingdom, Rendition), but despite an experienced director and committed cast, it still ends up achieving only mediocrity. It's almost as if Ridley Scott knew that substance was lacking but just decided to produce his way out of it and hope nobody noticed. Significantly slicker and more visually realistic than its predecessors, Body of Lies commands your attention only to tell you something annoyingly trivial. What was the point of this again?

Oh yeah, to celebrate jingoism and reinforce toxic stereotypes about the Middle East. Look, I'm not saying terrorism isn't a real threat and that these movies don't have some educational potential, but at this point the "rogue American hero infiltrating terror cells and romancing the beautiful local woman" is a pretty stale set-up, and we never learn any lesson at the end anyway, do we?
The number of clichés on display here is almost breathtaking; it's disconcerting and frankly insulting, for example, to see CIA agents continue to disguise themselves in foreign countries by wearing track jackets, sunglasses, and floppy hats, successfully establishing themselves as the only people in the country ever dressed like that.

But I'm asking for too much if I'm asking for a new story. It's just that I would enjoy something fresh, a crazy conspiracy theory or a shocking twist at the end - anything new. If I'm not going to get anything meaningful out of these movies, at least entertain me. Russell Crowe knows this, otherwise why would he ham up his performance as a hilarious hybrid of Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush? Leonardo DiCaprio
(whose "costume" here is almost comical: brown contact lenses and a lumberjack goatee?) knows this, otherwise why would he leave me near tears laughing at the scene with the children at lunch, one of the funniest I've seen all year? In fact if it wasn't for Crowe, Russell, and what should finally be a star-making turn for Mark Strong (Sunshine; Stardust), the movie would be almost unbearable to sit through, even if it is kind of pretty to look at.

Hollywood surrenders to contrivances and clichés yet again...

If any of this sounded familiar as you were reading it, imagine how I felt writing it. I already reviewed this movie here, here, here, here, here, and, most importantly, here. Turn a synopsis from any of those reviews into a Mad Lib and you'll likely end up summarizing Body of Lies in the process.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+


  1. Yeah, I kind of hated it. I'd probably give a (D), like Blindness.

    Nothing seemed to really work here, on just a surface level or anything. I didn't think DiCaprio and Crowe had much in the way of chemistry; I thought Scott's direction was completely uninspired; the screenplay a jumbled mess.

    It almost makes Eagle Eye look like a great film... for what it does, anyway.

  2. Well, this is just what I expected, and you were refreshingly blunt with the assessment here. I won't rush to see it (too much, too little time) but if it fits in, fine. I am not a big Ridley Scott fan despite your rightful acknowledgement of BLADE RUNNER (and ALIEN) I disliked AMERICAN GANGSTER and BLACK HAWK DOWN, for different reasons, but still, I know both have their adherents.
    I like the way you described Di Caprio's "costume." LOL!

  3. Yikes, glad I decided to skip this puppy. Looked just like Traitor except with bigger names.

    Seems like an obvious rental on a slow night, however. I like pretty pictures. :)

  4. Oooh, put a hurt on it, Alexander! If Eagle Eye was any kind of fresh, interesting story, then it very likely could end up being the superior movie. But - does it have someone who says "Buddy" every three minutes? I had flashbacks to Encino Man a couple times here.

    Sam, I actually hated Black Hawk Down, and I skipped Kingdom of Heaven, mostly because people who recommended I see it were people who loved Black Hawk Down. I think Scott just needs to take some creative freedoms and try something totally cutting-edge, maybe get back to the future.

    I didn't think I would ever end up recommending Traitor, Evan, but between the two it's the more important film, even if it's not as visually impressive.

  5. Yea, I was just gonna come in here and say how surprised I was that Traitor got a higher grade than this (which I haven't seen), considering your disdain for it.

    I'm not big on Scott or Crowe (though I think both are talented, of course), so I'll likely sit this one out. And if DiCaprio found yet another script where his character dies at the end, that would be too much for me. Talk about a martyr syndrome...

  6. I'd like to think I felt disappointment toward Traitor more than disdain:

    "as an overall illustration of how religious zealots can "use" people to carry out violent acts, it's mostly successful."

    Of course, I did go on to say:

    "it will be just another forgettable movie; the lasting images will unfortunately be of violent Muslims."

    Same goes for Body of Lies - but worse.

    I didn't think about DiCaprio's roles...interesting. I think you might have found yourself a future post there.

  7. I am not so sad that I missed the press screening of this anymore!

    Thanks ;)

  8. Tremendous review, Daniel. On one level, I appreciate you enabling me to ignore another piece of consumer entertainment product. With so many choices out there and less petty cash to spend on them, nothing less than a B+ warrants my attention.

    Why do you think almost every single narrative about the war on terror or on Iraq so far has been so mediocre? I hold United 93 out of that genre, but include all the flicks discussed here. Have the movies all been this bad, or are critics just not falling in love with them?

  9. I have seen it now, and I can say your perceptions are DEAD-ON!!!!

  10. You'll live, Nick.

    Thanks very much, Joe. I think it's a combination of factors, as I outlined in that last post I link to above: They're polarizing, or they're made by people with an agenda, or they're just plain bad. Or, most of all, people just aren't interested. BoL is a case of these latter two factors.

    As it happens, the most critically acclaimed of these movies are the ones that actually bring the war home, another of my theories outlined in the post. Traitor and Stop-Loss, for example, are not only two of the better movies from this genre, but also two of the few that take place stateside. I don't think that's a coincidence (same goes for Elah, actually, which was also critically acclaimed). Neither of them had been released when I wrote that, otherwise I would have been able to flush it out a little better.

    There are two upcoming movies, American Son and The Hurt Locker, which I think may prove this further. I expect the former to be the better movie.

    Well, Sam, that's somewhat validating, but it's still annoying that we've all spent our time on this movie!

  11. just checked this movie out the other day. Despite your optimism on this film I can’t really agree… I felt it was rather weak in some ways. Ridley Scott is a genius in some films, but not this one.

    I actually hyped it on EverHYPE and gave Body of Lies 69%:

    Check it out, http://www.everhype.com/hyper/Michael?X=M645.

    If you get on rate me a 5 on that one and request friendship.

  12. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Michael. I'm not really sure where you pick up on optimism in my review here; I agree that it's a bad movie. Never heard of EverHYPE, but uh, good luck with that, pal.

  13. I was meaning in terms of your scoring, since you gave 10 for acting... I don't feel they showed much skill as acting, it was all situation based really...

    Yeah EverHYPE is just a kind of review site, but it's more organized and structured in a way that it's easier to find stuff, of course if you're a big writer like yourself you may want more flexibility, but it suits me.

  14. Haha, you're right. My britches are a little too big for EverHYPE - even Blogger can barely contain my amazing and voluminous writing. Just kidding. Well I tried to to hype you up the other day but it required a sign-up process that I wasn't willing to go through with at the time.

    I definitely agree with your review that the visuals were the strong point here (along with the pacing and editing, that's what my "production" score includes), but I gotta say that I thought the acting was solid across the board, as I note above re: Crowe, DiCaprio and Strong.

    Anyway you look at it, we agree this movie was a missed opportunity for something much better and much more important.

  15. Well, you encouraged me to put the hurt on it, Daniel, and I did. I think my review makes yours almost look like a rave, haha.

    I liked the way you noted that this movie seemed like such an obvious echo of previous "war on terror" pictures from Hollywood in the last year or so, a point that became central to the comments section at Coleman's Corner.

  16. Fantastic - I will make sure to give that one a serious read and add my thoughts as well. I didn't think there would be a more vitriolic recent review than my take on Blindness, so this ought to be fun to read...

  17. Apparently Ridley Scott enjoys working with Russell Crowe; and he likes to make movies that raise international awareness (i'm thinking Blackhawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven)... that's a good thing i'd say

  18. Hmm...well there's no denying your first thought. I don't know how many they've done together, but they're both already signed on for Nottingham next year, which I'm looking forward to despite myself, mostly out of nostalgia for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

    As far as raising international awareness goes, well I certainly agree that's the most important thing in the world (it's actually my full-time job), but I think Ridley Scott could do it in a more enlightening, perhaps less violent way. Thanks for commenting again!

  19. This movie is definitely one the best of 2008

  20. Thanks for visiting, Lucy.

    You say po-tayt-oh, I say po-tot-oh. You say best, I say worst.

    It's all semantics.


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