Early in Ridley Scott's terrorism thriller “Body of Lies,” Leonardo DiCaprio's CIA spy Roger Ferris finds himself in the middle of an Iraqi desert at a cinder block safe house, trying to meet with a skittish Al-Qaeda member seeking asylum. As Ferris nervously waits by an all-terrain vehicle for his aide to bring out the informant, we see him from the perspective of support agents back in Washington, peering through the camera on an unmanned drone hovering over Ferris' head. He looks up at it, glinting in the sunlight miles above, then huffs into a microphone hidden on his body. “You're attracting attention!” he complains, ordering them to back the thing off. The point is made, and made again and again as “Body” tracks down terrorists and loses them. Ferris' blackened hair, beard and fluency in Arabic best facilitate his anti-terrorist operations, while the armchair experts back home just get in his way.
This is certainly a more nuanced view than most recent terrorism flicks. Absent are the stultifying chidings of “Lions for Lambs” and gung-ho patriotism of “The Kingdom” in favor of more slippery points of view, like Ferris' boss back in the states, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). A flabby family man who has been a fast riser in the newly terror-preoccupied agency, Hoffman is an interesting take on the shadowy bureaucrat in spy movies. Bellicose, impatient and dismissive of Ferris' Arab contacts, he's also an unsettling mix of power and informality. Ever armored in his own smirking conviction, he sometimes seems to be playing a high-stakes game as he gives over-the-phone, across-the-world directives by the pool at his pricey home, or on the way to his kids' soccer practice. “Whatever,” he bleats into the ubiquitous hands-free cell phone cord dangling from his ear as he ends one such call with the always exasperated Ferris. Then, getting in the car, he asks his little girl if she's ready to go. “Whatever,” she responds in the same droll tone.
That's the kind of grace note “Body” is capable of, even as it composes lengthier passages that reveal the thorny difficulties faced by a democracy trying to tamp extremism in foreign nations. Crowe reinforces his reputation as an actor with great flexibility when Hoffman pushes his way into an impromptu meeting with Ferris' top Jordanian contact (Mark Strong), a suave statesman and anti-terrorism chief. The scene helps the movie show both a willingness of Middle Eastern states to combat terror, and an intractability of cultural differences that might make it extremely difficult.
While Hoffman might not be an exact replica of any one self-righteous administrator, he's a refreshingly original movie archetype, especially compared to Ferris. DiCaprio is, as always, aided tremendously by his seemingly inexhaustible charisma, but echoes of “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed” (written by “Body” screenwriter William Monahan) reinforce the feeling we've seen this guy battle the forces of evil by himself before. It's not DiCaprio's fault, but it's no wonder his Ferris is frustrated. He's borne similar burdens in countless action flicks.
Ferris and Hoffman are meant to show contrast between hard-line and conciliatory foreign policy, but they accidentally highlight opposing forces in Scott's movie as well. Do CIA agents really dodge explosions like James Bond? Do they politely court local women in strife-torn regions they are trying to crack? Regardless, a love interest (Golshifte Farahani) certainly doesn't help us take the movie more seriously than, say, “The Kingdom,” even if it ultimately deserves to be. Luckily there's no love scene, though there is a race against the clock to save the girl.
Funny that “Body” begins by describing our Middle East conflict as a war between backward people and the future men of our tech world, because it ends as a conflict between outdated thriller tropes and the perilous desire to turn them into up-to-the-minute political commentary. Thinking of Jason Bourne running through “Syriana,” it's no wonder if audiences have a hard time responding. Fighting to make it work, “Body” ends up taking on way too much. It closes with an uncertainty similar to our current campaigns against terror, which is by itself commendable. But it also leaves little doubt of its greater purpose, which is to milk entertainment dollars out of a very unfortunate situation. (R) 128 min. S