Deborah Ross

Could do better | 19 November 2008

Body of Lies<br /> 15, Nationwide

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Body of Lies

15, Nationwide

Body of Lies is the latest film from producer/director Ridley Scott and it is an espionage thriller set mostly in the Middle East — Iraq, Jordan and Syria — featuring espionage, counter-espionage, counter-counter-espionage and, if you can keep up, which I didn’t, there is probably a considerable amount of counter-counter-counter-espionage in there too. In short, it is unlikely that you’ll come out of the cinema saying, ‘Well, that was a little light on the espionage, wasn’t it, dear?’ It’s one of those films where, part of the way through, you even start to think, do I actually care enough to follow all this? Is it even possible to follow this? (It is vexingly complex.) Or shall I drift and think of something else? Perhaps it’s just because I failed espionage at school — ‘could do better, and when is she going to get that false moustache?’ my reports always said — that I couldn’t get into it; found it such a dramatically uninvolving, uphill slog. On the other hand, it may be that it’s just not a very good film.

The thing is, this is a film that wants to be one thing, wants to say, as it literally does at one point, that ‘none of us is innocent’, and that the human cost of this war on terror is appalling all round, but then proceeds to trip up on every action movie conceit in the book: explosions every five minutes, car chases every ten minutes, someone getting their head blown off every quarter of an hour or so and, fighting his way though it all, a dishy, macho, white, morally righteous, swaggering hero who is up against it but always just gets away in time. Phew! Close shave, that one. It’s James Bond via today’s headlines, which should, I suppose, at least make it feel very now, but it doesn’t. There is nothing in this you haven’t seen before, and oodles that you have.

Our hero? Our hero here is Leonardo DiCaprio as CIA agent Roger Ferris, an Arab-speaking operative on a tricky assignment to track the elusive al-Qa’eda terrorist leader Al-Saleem, who has been organising suicide bombings in Europe and America to avenge the blood spilt by US and UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ferris is our man out there, in the thick of it, getting dirty, duffed up and bloodied. There is also, I should warn you, a terrible scene to do with torture and his fingers. I do think squeamish cinema-goers should be offered discounted tickets, based on the proportion of a film they will spend hiding behind their hands. ‘That’s £10 madam or, if you are squeamish, £7.50, as you will not be able to watch 25 per cent of it. Fingers are hammered, madam! Hammered!’

Anyway, Ferris’s greatest ally — or, these webs of deceit being what they are, is it nemesis? — is Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), head of the CIA’s Near East division. Hoffman does not get down and dirty. Instead, he watches Ferris via satellite from his spick and span life in America, issuing directives by mobile phone, as if Ferris were some kind of remote-control toy. Hoffman is fat (Crowe put on 50 pounds for the role) because, presumably, he is a man who takes what he wants, although that may be a little unfair. A lot of fat people, after all, are fat through no fault of their own. It’s a disease.(Indeed, as one fat lady told me, ‘I came down with obesity a year after my marriage and then, alas, my husband caught it. We now spend all day every day sitting on the couch, eating KFC, and watching TV while hoping for news of a breakthrough cure...’) But the best character by far is Mark Strong as Hani Salaam, head of Jordanian intelligence, whom he plays with an elegant, silky deceitfulness. I couldn’t tell you who he’s deceiving or why, but I did admire the silky elegance.

Aside from being confusing, which may just be me — ‘Deborah could show more enthusiasm when it comes to disseminating misinformation and double crossing people,’ my reports always said — it’s actually the pile up of clichés and implausibilities that make the whole thing such a slog. There is no way, for example, that anyone could take the succession of physical beatings that Ferris does. The dénouement has to be the cheesiest one ever. And as for Ferris finding a conscience, as for realising, unlike Hoffman, that all human life matters, this is engineered by way of a love story involving an Iranian nurse that is such an obvious add-on it’s as if it’s been jetted in from another movie altogether.

Considering Scott’s track record (Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster) as well as that of screenwriter William Monahan (who won an Oscar for The Departed) it's hard to account for this, which is just such a dog's dinner, not that my dog would touch it. He likes Pedigree Chum. Then, again, perhaps it all goes back to the espionage thing although, come on, my reports weren’t all bad. ‘Can recognise shapes and is good with sand,’ they would also often say, ‘Well done, Deborah, well done!’