“Body of Lies”
Warner Bros.
At Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

1 out of 5 Stars

Somehow, from the director of “Gladiator,” the writer of “The Departed” and leads Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, we have a complete and utter disaster, “Body of Lies.” An uptight, insipid spy thriller set among America’s contemporary wars and obsessions, the film proves nearly impossible to understand. It’s an erratic mish-mash of senseless action; lazily conceived, embarrassingly melodramatic plot turns; and vapid political undertones.

DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a dedicated CIA operative in the Middle East trying to appropriately appease, avenge and frustrate the many diverse players in the region. He takes orders from Ed Hoffman (Crowe), a higher-up at the agency who never reveals his true intentions and seems indifferent to the problems and dangers Ferris faces. He shuttles Ferris from Iraq to Jordan to Dubai (among others), and gives him one impossible mission after another, endangering not only the life of his field operative, but also regional stability.

There are terrorists with foreign names, they bomb things, Hoffman and Ferris devise a ridiculous plan to stop them, the Jordanian secret service is both a friend and foe — and before you know it, Ferris is in a dungeon getting tortured. I’d like to clarify or be more specific, but that’s really all the frantic pace and veering direction of the film will allow you to comprehend.

The most glaring problem in “Body of Lies” is the Hoffman character. He’s supposed to be the heartless bureaucrat that we should hate, but it’s troubling that the film makes no effort to describe beyond that. We know nothing of his motivations or of his worldview, as imperfect as they probably are. Instead, he’s an empty villain who is apparently supposed to impress audiences with his sheer maniacal vagueness. But it doesn’t work.

Director Ridley Scott, once so good at humanizing the superhuman character anchoring his films (“Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven”), seems to have turned to depicting impressive, larger-than-life villains whose lack of discernable motivation makes them cartoonish and dull. For all the gravitas Denzel Washington brought to the main role in Scott’s last film “American Gangster,” his character was just a two-dimensional hoodlum — hardly worthy of that actor or director.

Similarly, in “Body of Lies,” Crowe expends much creative energy to fill out a character that’s a dud from his very conception. DiCaprio, apparently vying to take the title of “most freakishly intense on-screen presence” from Tom Cruise, does a lot of running and grandstanding, but none of it adds up to anything. Instead of showcasing his considerable talent at owning difficult roles (“Blood Diamond”), this film gives us the whiny Leo (“The Aviator”) who no one could possibly care for.

It used to be that we’d decry a film like this for being a (liberal) Hollywood fantasy that indicts without taking into account the harshness of reality. But “Body of Lies” is a failure on a much lower level. It can never be accused of being preachy because it has nothing to say. As a thriller it’s predictable and lame, and as a political film it’s hapless and confusing.

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