Although its Mideast trappings have become terribly familiar in any number of recent movies from Syriana to The Kingdom to director Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down William Monaghan’s (The Departed) tight script still has pertinent things to say about the lies and deceptions inherent in our covert operations in the region. Cloaked in a cat and mouse thriller format the story centers on Roger Ferris (DiCaprio)--a top CIA operative fluent in the Arab language-- who roams from country to country trying to penetrate top secret terrorist cells and uncover plans for mayhem. In trying to smoke out a shadowy terrorist who has been directing a series of key bombings against civilian targets in Europe Ferris comes up with the ingenious idea to create a phony rival group that appears to be taking credit for the “real” Al Qaeda-type organization’s business. Complicating matters for Ferris is his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back at CIA headquarters who sees the world in black and white and believes there is no such thing as going too far to achieve goals in the best interest of the U.S. Both must also deal with the head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who recognizes that each is useful for his own counter-terrorism efforts. There are a LOT of explosions that keep getting in the way of the dramatics--and much of the Crowe/DiCaprio teaming is played out on opposite sides of a phone line. But Body of Lies incorporates a first-rate cast including many local Middle Eastern performers who make strong impressions. Crowe--adopting some sort of quasi-southern accent (apparently from Arkansas)--creates an amusing CIA boss who sees the world from one perspective--his. Juxtaposing his duties to family as well as America Crowe creates a full blooded portrait of a husband father and CIA lifer who thinks he knows all the answers. His few scenes when he is face to face with co-star DiCaprio are worth the wait and both stars play off each other with ease. DiCaprio is back in Blood Diamond territory here as a rogue operative using his own ingenuity to make a difference. His on-screen command of some Arabic phrases is unforced and impressive and he earns the audience’s empathy particularly when he winds up in well over his head. There are also some nice scenes opposite a Muslim nurse he strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani is beautiful and nicely understated in these moments. Strong who also is very fine in another of the week’s new releases RocknRolla is suave and powerful as the shrewd Jordanian Crowe and DiCaprio cross swords with. Other regional actors fill out their roles with uncommon authenticity. There can be no question Ridley Scott is a master of the film medium. Body of Lies moves very well and thanks to the Scott style manual has lots of urgency. Employing his usual use of multiple cameras getting simultaneous angles in every scene Scott doesn’t rely on actors having to do a lot of takes and in the process manages to give the film a documentary kind of feel. Although the filmmaking approach sometimes leads to more confusion than we would like it also puts us right in the center of the action. And there’s plenty of that. Working for the fourth time with Crowe the two clearly have a rapport and similar seat-of-the-pants way of working which DiCaprio seems to have picked up nicely. If this isn’t as impressive an overall achievement as Black Hawk Down it’s still an entertainment that is a cut above some of the other recent spate of Middle East-set thrillers. Locations are well used too with Northern Africa and specifically the Moroccan environs filling in for the some dozen countries identified on the screen.
Flimflam man matchstick man con man--there are all kinds of names for them but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional who along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan however is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman) the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious sweet-faced junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living she is instantly smitten. In fact she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like "a duck to water." The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters but with Roy he goes a little over the top as he races through a pharmacy twitching grunting and making "whoop!" sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up Roy's quirks become more subtle as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist she tells Roy "Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows." Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise) the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner and as a typical teenager the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.