In the early 1980s, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), the eldest son of Ukrainian refugees, is visiting a Brighton Beach restaurant, where he witnesses a Russian mobster kill two would-be assassins holding Kalashnikov assault rifles. He is inspired to go into the arms trade, comparing the constant need for weapons to the similar human need for food. After completing his first sale, Yuri convinces his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) to become his partner, and they leave their jobs at the family restaurant behind.
Yuri's first big break comes in the 1982 Lebanon War, when he sells guns to all sides of the conflict, despite witnessing war crimes and atrocities. As Yuri becomes more successful in the war's aftermath, his business comes to the attention of Interpol, and in particular idealistic agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke).
Vitaly becomes addicted to cocaine after a Colombian drug lord uses drugs to pay for an arms deal. Yuri checks Vitaly into drug rehabilitation, and continues business alone. He lures childhood crush Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) to a false photo shoot and subsequently marries her.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yuri flies to Ukraine and illegally buys tanks and weapons through his uncle, a former Soviet general. Yuri expands to Africa, and begins a business relationship with Andre Baptiste, Sr. (Eamonn Walker), a ruthless dictator waging a never-ending civil war in Liberia. During one flight into Africa, Yuri's cargo plane is intercepted by Valentine and forced to land. Yuri escapes arrest by landing in a remote area, and distributing the aircraft's illegal cargo to the locals. Unable to charge Yuri, Valentine tells Ava he is an arms dealer, prompting her to confront him and demand he stop his illegal business. For a time, Yuri agrees, but Andre Baptiste, Sr. offers him even more money and soon he goes back.
Yuri soon goes to complete a sale in Sierra Leone in 2001, where a militia force allied with Baptiste is visibly preparing to destroy a refugee camp. Vitaly pleads with Yuri to abandon the deal, but Yuri refuses, arguing that if they do the militia will also kill them. Stricken with guilt, Vitaly steals a pair of grenades, destroying one of the weapons trucks and killing Baptiste, Jr. Vitaly is shot and killed. Yuri reluctantly accepts half of the original diamond payment for the remaining weapons.
At home, Ava discovers Yuri's cache of his arms-dealing activities. She leaves with their son while Yuri's parents disown him after learning the circumstances surrounding the death of Vitaly. When the U.S. Customs finds a bullet in Vitaly's corpse, Valentine arrests Yuri, who correctly predicts that he will be released, as a "necessary evil" who distributes weapons so major governments can deny involvement.Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov (based on Viktor Bout)Ethan Hawke as Jack Valentine (based on Lee S. Wolosky)Jared Leto as Vitaly OrlovBridget Moynahan as Ava FontaineNalu Tripician as Nikolai OrlovEamonn Walker as André Baptiste Sr. (based on Charles Taylor)Ian Holm as Simeon WeiszTanit Phoenix as CandyDonald Sutherland (voice only) as Colonel Oliver Southern (based on Oliver North)Weston Coppola Cage as VladimirSammi Rotibi as André Baptiste, Jr. (partially based on Charles McArther Emmanuel)Eugene Lazarev as General Dmitri OrlovKobus Marx as BorisLiya Kebede as FaithJasmine Sais Burgess as Gloria
Plot details on the illegal arms market, particularly regarding purchases for West Africa in early 1990s, are closely based on real stories and people originating from the former Soviet Union.The main protagonist, Yuri Orlov, is loosely based on several people.His character as the world's arms dominator is based on Lebanese-Armenian arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian.He shares his surname with Oleg Orlov, a Russian businessman arrested in Ukraine on suspicion of smuggling missiles to Iran. In 2007, Oleg Orlov was strangled in Kiev's Lukyanivska Prison during the investigation into his activities.TV channel History claims that Orlov's life is based on Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer notorious for smuggling arms and other merchandise through several aviation-company fronts.His background is loosely inspired by that of Semion Mogilevich, a Ukrainian-born suspected mastermind in Russian organized crime.The way he was imprisoned and later released resembles Edwin P. Wilson, a retired US intelligence officer who smuggled arms for Libya.The character Jack Valentine is partly based on Lee S. Wolosky, who doggedly pursued the real-life Viktor Bout as he sought refuge in various African and Middle Eastern countries.The character Andre Baptiste, Sr. is partly based on Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia until 2003.The character Andre Baptiste Jr. is partly based on Charles Taylor's son, Charles McArther Emmanuel. The character wields a gold-plated AKS-47, much like one found in the private quarters of Saddam Hussein's son Uday Hussein during the US-led invasion of Iraq.The character Colonel Oliver Southern hints at Oliver North, known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The conflicts portrayed in the film are all real conflicts in real countries, particularly those in Lebanon, Sudan, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Liberia, Colombia, and Sierra Leone. Conversely, the image of Interpol as an acting security agency is entirely fictional.
Some of the Russian language dialogues in the film (mostly those by Eugene Lazarev as Gen. Orlov) contain very obscene Russian mat wording, translated by far softer expressions in the original English subtitles. It is unclear whether these pieces were part of the script, or Lazarev's improvisation.
A scene in the film featured 50 tanks, which were provided by a Czech source. The tanks were only available until December of the year of filming, as the dealer needed them to sell in Libya. The production team rented 3000 real SA Vz. 58 rifles to stand in for AK 47s because they were cheaper than prop guns.
Lord of War received fairly positive reviews from critics; the film received a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the consensus states: "While Lord of War is an intelligent examination of the gun trade, it is too scattershot in its plotting to connect." The film also received a special mention for excellence in filmmaking from the National Board of Review.
It received a 62/100 score from Metacritic.
The film grossed $9,390,144 on its opening weekend, ranking number three at the North American box office behind Just Like Heaven and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. After the film's 7 weeks of release, it grossed a total of $24,149,632 on the domestic market (US and Canada), and $48,467,436 overseas, for a worldwide total of $72,617,068.
The UK DVD release of Lord of War includes, prior to the film, an advertisement for Amnesty International, showing the AK-47 being sold on a shopping channel of the style popular on cable networks. The American DVD release includes a bonus feature that shows the various weapons used in the film, allowing viewers to click on each weapon to get statistics about their physical dimensions and histories. The DVD bonus section also contains a public service announcement from Nicolas Cage that addresses the issue of illicit arms sales.