‘Body of Lies’ high-profile disappointment

Ben Raymond

At the beginning of this year, “Body of Lies” was on nearly every critic’s top 10 list of possible Academy Award contenders.

With a stellar acting duo, renowned director and Oscar-winning screenwriter at the helm of a best-selling Iraq war drama, it was hard to bet against it. But like so many films thus far in 2008, it disappoints.

“Body of Lies,” despite its apparently boundless potential, is a hyperactive miscellany of half-cocked performances, gaudy visuals and only moderate intrigue.

“Body of Lies” tells the story of CIA ground operative Roger “Buddy” Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, after a series of botched missions that leave his partners dead, challenges the authority of his Langley-bound commander Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe).

When Hoffman refuses to give Buddy the time and space he needs to get the job done right, friend becomes foe in a cat-and-mouse game where no one is to be trusted.

Directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”), one of cinema’s all-time greats, “Body of Lies” could not have been in more capable hands. However, the film is Scott’s fifth consecutive letdown since 2001.

Anyone remember “Matchstick Men”? Or how about “Kingdom of Heaven”? “American Gangster” was hopelessly underwhelming, and I wager you haven’t even heard of “A Good Year.”

It seems Scott is now making movies out of habit rather than inspiration.

“Body of Lies” has neither the visceral pathos of “Black Hawk Down” nor the sprawling majesty of “Gladiator.”

The film begins well enough; it’s slick, stylish and tense. Buddy’s desperation and resentment time and again are met with equally potent dismissals from the cavalier Hoffman.

But the rhythmic, ricocheting antagonism between DiCaprio and Crowe soon denatures into an incessant and obnoxious cell-phone bicker-off that sloppily chops up the story, at every turn killing whatever building momentum there might have been.

What begins like a taught, stimulating chess match between two cunning adversaries quickly becomes more like a stale game of checkers between two convalescents complaining about the temperature of their soup.

Audiences should come to expect more from the movie’s screenwriter William Monahan, the Oscar-winning scribe of “The Departed.”

Monahan steps onto his soapbox and preaches down to the audience, disguising his quasi-pointed political commentaries as sharply-orchestrated dialogue.

As snappy as his screenplay is, it’s all woefully transparent. The film feels written; it’s too deliberate, too obvious and too literal. Monahan bites off far more than he can chew adapting David Ignatius’ searing novel. Another bothersome facet of “Body of Lies” is its advertising campaign.

Heavily promoted on youth-oriented channels during sporting events and comedy shows, the movie’s trailers pushed it toward young adults with a lot of explosions and screaming played over nauseating death-metal.

It looked more like “Die Hard 8” (they’re on 8 now, right?) than the politically savvy action thriller it was meant to be.

And the film itself proved these schizophrenic promos all too true.

“Body of Lies” has a serious crisis of identity; it’s caught somewhere between pure action flick and smart political thriller – and it does neither well. Crowe, who put on nearly 50 pounds for the role, is not at all on his game.

Not once did I see an invigorated character; Crowe plays Crowe beginning to end. DiCaprio is at his typical high form, but his performance is a little too much like his turn as Billy Costigan in “The Departed.”

We see the same anguished grimaces, the same uneasy sympathy, the same tragic inevitability; it’s almost as if he was plucked from the streets of Southie and dropped straight into the sands of Tikrit.

There is hope for him, however.

His long-awaited reunion with “Titanic” co-star Kate Winslet comes this Christmas in the Sam Mendes-directed drama “Revolutionary Road.” Watch for the film, Winslet and DiCaprio to garner some serious Oscar talk.

“Body of Lies” is a film that does everything well but nothing at all new, daring or memorable.

Like so many movies this year, it rests on its laurels, lazily relying on its pedigree to create buzz and get people in the seats.

And the momentum stops there. Little effort is made by the filmmakers to give us anything worth remembering. Those who have seen it have already forgotten it. Don’t be at all surprised when the Academy doesn’t remember it come Oscar time either.

Despite the initial shock-and-awe of the film’s bombshell acting and directing tours de force, “Body of Lies” is a criminally overconfident picture that carelessly underestimates the depth and complexity of the story it haphazardly occupies.