Credit: Francois Duhamel

Body of Lies is a terrible title for a globe-trotting espionage drama — it sounds more like a cable-ready ”erotic” thriller starring Colin Farrell and Madonna. That tacky and meaningless title is a tip-off; it lets us know just how desperate the filmmakers are to please. Body of Lies has a lot of big, important explosions (whole buildings get blown up), plus the usual cars-barreling-through- the-Third-World-bazaar set pieces and sky-track surveillance shots that invite us to suck in our breath at the awesome telescopic reach of the CIA’s omnipresent eye. Yet most of this just seems, you know, so three years ago, so Bourne again. The director, that veteran big-budget action painter Ridley Scott, huffs and puffs to give a topical undercover scenario the patina of relevance. Really, though, he’s fighting the last war — and I don’t mean Iraq or Afghanistan, which Scott knows all too well are losers at the box office. I mean the Cold War. Working from a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), which is based on a David Ignatius novel, Scott takes rusty ’80s clichés from the days when we were playing nuclear chicken with Russia and retrofits them to the post-9/11 world. He exposes how weary those old spy tropes really are.

Leonardo DiCaprio, with a snaky undergrowth of beard that makes him look like a mandarin Cheshire cat, plays Roger Ferris, a CIA operative who has come as close as anyone in the agency to penetrating the enigmatic thicket of loyalties within the Middle East. Ferris speaks Arabic, and he knows that in the faceless world of international terror, information is king. He is also patched, more or less permanently, into the laptop of Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a middle-aged CIA veteran who now sits around at home in the suburbs, or in his Langley, Va., office, tracking Ferris’ movements on a spiffy wall-size monitor. The whole world is at his fingertips, which may be why Hoffman barely bothers to get out of his armchair. Crowe, with a graying bristle cut and 50 added pounds, gives Hoffman a smug drawl, and he spends the movie uttering each line in the same folksy-flat It’s all business, son! voice and peering, again and again, over the top of his officious spectacles. He seems to be phoning in his performance on purpose, which doesn’t make it any less rote.

Ferris and Hoffman are out to entrap the mysterious jihadist leader Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), a bin Laden figure who has left a trail of bombings and videotapes. In Jordan, Ferris makes contact with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of the country’s General Intelligence Department, which primes us for some seriously knotty intrigue. You don’t, after all, catch America’s most wanted terrorist mastermind by looking him up in the Amman yellow pages. Ferris uses Hani to connect with an informer, who will penetrate a local safe house. But the idea that Al-Saleem could, in fact, be nabbed through a safe house, or that a stray jihadist who ”turned” could be counted on to expose him, is like a scenario left over from the Brezhnev era, or maybe the age of Casablanca. Mark Strong, the debonair British actor who plays Hani (he’s like a taller, more insinuating Andy Garcia), does indeed have glittering hints of Old Hollywood malice pouring through his courtly charm. DiCaprio, by contrast, seems trapped?in that baby face, in his increasing inability to create even a dash of subtext. Ferris is attracted to an Iranian nurse, and nothing the star does makes this more than a laughably generic romance. Maybe it’s just the role, but the gifted DiCaprio is starting to come off as a less-than-inspired actor. His heart needs to catch fire again.

After a dead-dull first hour, the film arrives at its one promising twist: Ferris and Hoffman try to flush out Al-Saleem by inventing a fake rival terrorist, whose existence will lure him into the open. This plot should have been the whole film; had it been executed convincingly, we might have relaxed into the hokey, halfway plausible notion of defeating a terrorist by mimicking what he does. Body of Lies has the action scenes that may, by now, be the only way to sell a ”political” thriller. There’s a helicopter chase done in Scott’s technological blam-blam style, and a torture finale staged in an icky, exploitative way. Yet the movie skirts the most common-sense realities of how dispersed, and concealed, our enemies really are. That makes it not just far-fetched but monotonous. C?

Body of Lies
  • Movie
  • 126 minutes