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Body of Lies (Warner Bros., R)

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film_body-of-lies_sm.jpgThe best performance is easily that of Mark Strong, who offers a career-making turn as the charismatic Hani, steely eyed and controlled at all times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If your movie needs a director capable of staging visceral, stunning battle scenes or urban warfare, one who also has a knack for showcasing unpredictable characters who are pushed to the limit, then Ridley Scott has to be on your short list. In such disparate films as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and the 2001 classic Black Hawk Down, Scott demonstrated his masterful ability to work on a large cinematic canvas while exploring the tense and dangerous pathways of warfare and political/religious divisions with a keen eye for detail. The new Body of Lies contains elements of both Kingdom (the high price of obsessive religious fundamentalism) and Black Hawk (the U.S. getting overly involved with a volatile nation where the enemy is neither reasonable nor predictable), but its up-to-the-minute plot, based on the novel by David Ignatious, concerns the efforts of a CIA agent to track down a dangerous terrorist in the middle east before he can "unleash hell" on an even larger scale than the initial bombings we witness.

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a morally conflicted intelligence agent stationed in Iraq, where he tries to flush out troublemakers under the supposed tutelage of CIA division chief Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). When the trail of a terrorist leader named Al-Saleem seems to head for Jordan, Ferris travels there to see what he can learn. He's forced to negotiate with the cool, debonair but no-nonsense head of Jordanian intelligence named Hani (Mark Strong). The stakes couldn't be higher: both Hoffman and Hani have conflicting instructions/expectations for Ferris, and he doesn't fully trust either one of them. And this being the Middle East, bad guys are everywhere, and one error in judgment or one missed opportunity could be catastrophic. As Hoffman tells Ferris in one of many tense conversations, "We take our focus off this enemy for one minute and our world changes completely."

A suspected terrorist safehouse in Amman could provide clues to Al-Saleem's movements, but when a scheme spearheaded by Hoffman fails big time and spoils this opportunity, he and Ferris devise another one that involves convincing Al-Saleem that a rival group of jihadists is stealing some of his thunder. It's a dangerous game that will cost Ferris the trust of the crucially important Hani, interfere with his budding flirtation with a pretty Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) and test his endurance for this highwire CIA crap to the max. Oh, and the potential for, like, death 'n' stuff lies around every bend of every barren desert road Ferris travels.

Scott does a great job, by the way, capturing the inherent danger of those empty roads and the small villages or isolated adobe dwellings that they lead to. The viewer is kept on edge constantly, and the morality of both sides in the conflict proves equally questionable, as the CIA's tactics lead to loss of innocent life as casually as the jihadists' do. The screenplay by William Monahan (who also penned The Departed) is taut and suspenseful, never settling for black and white when gray is more truthful and thought provoking.

As far as the acting, DiCaprio has shown a taste for the blisteringly intense in his last few films. After Blood Diamond and this searing portrayal, which puts him through some brutal celluloid paces, you'd think he'd be ready for a romantic comedy or something (at least he'll be reuniting with Titanic costar Kate Winslet shortly). He's convincing and watchable here, but at times his character seems overly pat, and the tentative romance with Aisha seldom really convinces. Crowe's character is repugnant, a smug, pudgy, emotionally detached manipulator who's undoubtedly illustrative of the types that probably got us into this war in the first place. He's acting, you betcha, but you want to smack him at times. The best performance is easily that of Strong, who offers a career-making turn as the charismatic Hani, steely eyed and controlled at all times, a man who lives amidst razor-sharp tensions but adheres to a code of honor that includes blunt honesty, selective friendships and appreciation of the finer things in life.

The movie is visually absorbing, filled with explosively authentic moments that ring painfully true. It's a bit exhausting though, and full of unpleasantries such as torture scenes and grim dialogue. Body of Lies is certainly a strong addition to the roster of films inspired by the Iraq war...and better than offerings such as The Kingdom and Rendition. What a shame, though, that this genre has to keep growing. But Ridley Scott gives us an unflinching look inside a real-life mess, with his usual flair for the memorably dramatic. | Kevin Renick

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