film reporter


If Ridley Scott gave us a new kind of war movie with "Black Hawk Down," where an army unit functioning in total chaos in a hostile city became a collective protagonist, he now engineers a new kind of spy thriller in "Body of Lies."

Here is a landscape of deserved paranoia and horrific violence, of countless life-or-death scenarios, total distrust of enemies and allies alike and open contempt for anything American — again not undeserved. It might not be as much fun as old spy movies starring Cary Grant or more recent entertainments like"Spy Game," directed by Ridley's brother Tony, but it feels all too accurate.

To be sure, the film retains familiar genre elements: It has double crosses and plot twists, a romance — an improbable one — chases, gunfights and last-minute rescues. But the fiction is rooted in a Middle Eastern reality that is always grim and unsettling. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe certainly will bring out their admirers, but how the action-thriller crowd will react to such a disturbing environment is a tough call.

William Monahan's tough-minded screenplay — based on a novel by journalist David Ignatius, who has covered the CIA and Middle East — sees no action or impulse as heroic. It acknowledges bravery, but this bravery is sometimes foolish and its goals often murky and counterproductive.

DiCaprio's Roger Ferris is the angry and often frantic man on the ground in the war on terror in Iraq and Jordan. Back in the U.S., Crowe's arrogant CIA veteran Ed Hoffman hovers over laptops and tracks ground movements half a world away via spy satellites. Hoffman, who would sacrifice his mother to single-handedly win the war on terror, easily earns Ferris' enmity, but Ferris needs his eyes and strategies.

In trying to flush a ruthless terrorist (Alon Aboutboul) out of hiding, the uneasy duo encounters a silky and charismatic head of Jordanian intelligence (British actor Mark Strong), an often bewildered local guide (Oscar Isaac), a computer whiz (Simon McBurney), a hapless pawn (Ali Suliman) and a nurse (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani).

Ferris' tentative romance with the nurse is the film's most awkward device. Any relationship between a Muslim woman and American passing through Amman, Jordan, would be most unlikely in that society. Even so, the relationship is a naked stratagem to create a nearly fatal emotional attachment for the spy.

Scott pushes the film at breakneck speed. He switches points of view rapidly from Ferris in treacherous terrain to Hoffman multitasking on the phone while dealing with his family and suburban life to overhead camera angles of the Predator tracking system. Urgency fills the characters' every waking moment. Rules of the day are established with primacy given to swift execution by a colleague if anyone is likely to fall into enemy hands and suffer horrifying torture.

What motivates Ferris is never clear, and this is the film's greatest weakness. With Hoffman running operations behind his back, he has no safety net, even an illusory one. He is a little too much of a white knight in this dark world, but DiCaprio gives the role plenty of brio, while Crowe — who reportedly gained 50 pounds to play the morally and physically sloven office spook — is agreeably obnoxious. (partialdiff)