The lifespan of a bullet-from the shaping of the shell to the shattering of a skull-is covered, quickly and glibly, in the computer-generated opening credits of Lord of War. If only the movie that follows were as direct and dead-on. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Niccol falls short of the straight-shooter mark, slinging his audience all over the place in chronicling the rise and fall of a morally stunted arms merchant who peddles death on a massive scale all around the globe.

Nicolas Cage swaggers through the title role with a conscienceless arrogance as if he were blithely hustling vacuum cleaners door-to-door instead of weapons of mass destruction country-to-country. His idea of a problem, he says in his introductory notes, is that at a time when every 12th person packs a rod, how do you arm the other 11?

It's a problem-but is it a screenplay? Niccol stacks the film with some horrifying stats about contemporary weapon-peddling and how the major players are the major powers (ours included, of course). Then, by way of illustrating the point, he has soft-focused his central character, an amalgam of five such "salesmen" he actually interviewed for the film, coming up with a wealth of anecdotal detail but little in the way of humanity which would draw the audience into the character's psyche and make him understandable.

Perhaps this character, an American-Ukrainian named Yuri Orlov, came aboard the film D.O.A., so venal and perverse that he was beyond caring about because of the very nature of his profession. Niccol adopts the tactic of laughing at his atrocious action, but this is black satire without the smarts of, say, Dr. Strangelove-and the resulting tone is uneven.

Lord of War staggers through a plot rich with violent incident (too rich, if the truth be known). Bodies fall right and left, with neat little bullet holes in the foreheads. Once, a particularly vicious Liberian dictator tries out the feel of a gun by casually killing a guard nearby. The payoff of this throwaway deed? Yuri insists the ruler buy the weapon since it is, now, "a used gun." Humor and horror dance uncertainly like that throughout the film.

Cage does an interesting tightrope walk as Yuri, presenting him in a proper star-power mode and minimizing his moral warts in an ongoing, long-going narration that runs alongside the film. His kid bro and partner in crime-played by Jared Leto in one of his drug-addict stances-is locked in loose-cannon overdrive and goes in an obvious direction.
Bridget Moynahan has little to do but look the other way as the trophy wife plainly patterned after Kay Corleone, and Ian Holm is overqualified and underused as an old-guard arms dealer. Ethan Hawke is only okay as the Interpol every-cop on Yuri's tail.

Amir Mokri's thought-filled camerawork and Zach Staenberg's editing are first-rate and keep the overstuffed plot at least in discernible motion, but, truth to tell, Niccol (who wrote The Truman Show) has too much on his mind here and not enough film to tell it.

-Harry Haun