Still living with his immigrant family in Brighton Beach Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) has had enough--the family restaurant has no customers his cook brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) can't cook and his mother nags his devout Jewish father who is anything but Jewish. So instead of getting sucked into a go-nowhere life Yuri naturally gets into arms dealing. After selling a local hood an Uzi Yuri discovers that he might actually have the knack. He recruits his younger brother--more for moral support than business acumen--and begins to soar up the arms dealing food chain attaining wealth luxury and an exciting lifestyle along the way. The only thing he lacks is his dream girl--Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) a Brighton Beach beauty queen-turned-supermodel. But Yuri finally wins her heart too by posing as a legitimate businessman with more money than he actually has. Ava senses he's not legit but just as long as they have their penthouse overlooking Central Park and a chauffeured limo she'd rather not know what he does. Meanwhile Yuri's interests clash with his chief rival Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) an old-school gun runner coming to terms with the end of the Cold War. Backed into a corner Yuri is given a choice between continued competition or none at all and his decision sends Yuri into a spiral of rapid moral decay despite ever-increasing profits. His greatest struggle through it all has been with himself. In the end he learns to accept the Golden Rule of arms dealing: Never wage war with anybody especially yourself.
The highlight of Niccol's biting satire is undoubtedly Cage's performance as the amoral but charming Yuri. How is it that we root for this loathsome character when he deserves our scorn? Perhaps the answer lies in Cage himself who is adept at playing scoundrels with humor and aplomb. Not many other actors come to mind who can pull off a frantic matter-of-factness quite like Cage a crucial quality needed to disarm the audience into rooting for a guy who gets stinking rich by selling guns to murderers. Equally likeable is Yuri's best customer Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker) the president of Liberia whose only competition for the prize of Most Ruthless Killer is his own son (Sammi Rotibi). Meanwhile Ethan Hawke shows up every now and then as Jack Valentine a by-the-book Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail. Valentine's adherence to the law allows him to routinely miss opportunities to nab his foe. He won't yield an inch and at one point even keeps Yuri in custody without charges for the full maximum of twenty-four hours but not a second more. Bridget Moynahan's performance as Yuri's wife is serviceable though she does effectively convey the hurt and sorrow of a wife deceived. Leto's turn as Yuri's drug-addicted brother has both its comedic and tragic moments--his character has the most defined arc and the young actor makes the most of it. Only Ian Holm as Yuri's chief foil seems out of place. Half the time he looks bored to be there the other half he doesn't seem to care. Any old British actor with a smudge of charm could have filled this character's small shoes.
The film opens with Yuri speaking to the camera (his narration runs throughout) but it's the following sequence that pulls us in. Starting at a munitions factory in the Soviet Union we follow a bullet from its creation as it travels through various ports on its way to an African country where it's loaded into an AK-47 and shot into a child's head--a powerful and stylish way to show us the tragedy of the arms business without being dogmatic. From there the film settles down into a standard narrative which is where Cage's impressive performance kicks in. Niccol who also wrote the screenplay offers no apologies for Yuri's detachment from his business dealings though it's tough to pinpoint what thematically he's trying to say. Perhaps it's that the arms trade is a fact of life something all governments partake in--particularly the United States the biggest arms dealer in the world. As we watch Yuri grow in wealth while losing everything else most people consider important--family friends morality--Niccol seems content showing us the world as is without offering solutions. The last we see of Yuri is in some war-torn part of the world standing among thousands of spent bullet casings. He has accepted his fate with a casual shrug telling us that so too should we.