-By Frank Lovece

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The fascination we have with CIA thrillers—as opposed to the complete lack of interest we have in the routine, workaday job of real-life CIA agents, which is more about snitches than shooters—comes from the idea of living between the lines, of slipping backstage. It's a delicious fantasy to imagine going behind the scenes and being part of the mechanism that runs the world. Like serial-killer masterminds, eccentrics with perfect insight and other movie tropes, field agents from Bond to Bourne are fantastical, unicorn-like creatures. They see through the scrim to the clockworks behind it.

As audiences, we're so indoctrinated into the movie-spy persona that filmmakers either accentuate it or play against it—that latter giving us everything from Get Smart parody to Patrick McGoohan's unarmed operatives in his 1960s conflicted-spy series Danger Man, a.k.a. Secret Agent Man, and The Prisoner. And the former tack gives us movies like Body of Lies—pseudo-gritty, pseudo-documentary-style, pseudo-smart. This isn't to say it's not entertaining, or that the craftsmanship and the acting aren't as sleek and polished as our hero's perpetually shiny, spic-’n-span SUV, which somehow never gets dirty being propelled through grimy, dusty, muddy Jordanian streets. But it's a simple black-hat/white-hat western at heart—so knowingly, perhaps, that one baddie taunts the good guy that "the cavalry" isn't coming to the rescue. Which, of course, it does. They always did in cowboy-and-Indian movies.

And that's what Body of Lies simply is, at its core. Based on a 2007 novel by David Ignatius, an editor and columnist for The Washington Post, the story takes place all over the desert frontier of the Old West—er, the Middle East—pitting idealistic government agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) against a savage Injun—sorry, sorry, Islamic terrorist—who's killing settlers and setting wagon trains on fire—I mean, setting off bombs in European cities.

How could we be so confused? Is it possibly because of the reactionary tone designed to pander to kneejerk, middle-American prejudices and stereotypes? The "good" Middle Eastern characters, primarily the dapper and slickly self-assured Jordan Intelligence chief, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), are all inscrutable exotics with an alien code of conduct; Salaam may as well have been an Indian shaman, taking the goodhearted young Ferris under his wing and issuing experienced warnings to Ferris' crusty old commander, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), which the crusty old commander, of course, disregards. How did we not get the equivalent of a greedy railroad baron in all this?

We do get the equivalent of the desert flower, in the form of nurse Aisha (the major young Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who, in clearly a tribute to her talent, continued working in high-profile roles in Iran despite at least five of her international productions having been banned there). When Ferris meets her in a clinic, Aisha's tough and wary at first—frontierswomen always are—but later shows her softer side, although her gingham dress and bonnet must have been in the wash.

Crowe, whom the production notes claim, not quite convincingly, gained 50 pounds for the role (25 looks more like it), turns in another remarkable performance, perfectly capturing the easygoing, snake-oil charm of a cajoling Georgia boy with brains. But DiCaprio, despite sporting what we're told is a North Carolina accent, is simply being Leonardo DiCaprio, the way Robert De Niro has pretty much always just played Robert De Niro these last several years. The Italian-English Strong is delightful as a self-created Jordanian Gatsby, all knowing pose and elegant slickness; he also looks like the Andy Garcia of England. Hispanic actor Oscar Isaac make an impression early on as Ferris' Iraqi translator and partner.

Technically, the movie is impeccable. Director Ridley Scott, cinematographer Alexander Witt and editor Pietro Scalia produce an ultrafine, fast-moving product that is undeniably entertaining and seems far brisker than its roughly two-hour length; action sequences like a helicopter-gunship battle with antiaircraft-missile-firing SUVs are executed excitingly. A couple of plot points do get clunkily glossed over, but mostly, the narrative holds up. If you're looking for a high-tech, old-fashioned racist B-western, you've come to the right place, pilgrim.

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