‘Body of Lies’ review: engaging Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe spy thriller

A compelling if somewhat unsatisfying spy thriller, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies gets by on some strong performances and a surprisingly intricate, well-detailed story. 

Refreshingly adult and not afraid to require the viewer to pay close attention, the talky-but-engrossing film is a welcome diversion from the usual mainstream action fare, which includes the latest Bond film. Still, Body of Lies ultimately charts as something of a disappointingly minor effort from the director.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Roger Ferris, an undercover CIA operative tracking down notorious terrorist Al-Saleem with the aid of his superior back in Langley, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). 

When he tracks down a suspected safehouse in Jordan, he requests the assistance of Hani (Mark Strong) the Chief of Jordanian Police, whose only request from Ferris is that he never lies to him. 

The hunt for Al-Saleem is carried out in a number of ways, with and without Hani’s assistance; the film’s most intriguing segment involves Ferris and Hoffman setting up a fictional terrorist sect in an effort to flush the other one out. 

Title refers to the three main characters and the level of trust they’re able to put in each other; while each has the same goal, they want to accomplish through their own methods, which may involve the (sometimes unwitting) aid of the others or not.

DiCaprio is good but his character feels underwritten. Ferris is the most driven character in the movie but we never get to know what drives him; we might imagine our spies and intelligence men as cool and collected professionals, like Crowe’s Hoffman or Strong’s Hani or any James Bond. 

Ferris is a man who seems to feel no particular allegiance to US or other authorities, yet he’s frothing at the mouth to uncover these terrorists. What’s his motivation?

Crowe is excellent as the distracted Hoffman, a man who guides Ferris through operations while picking up a daughter from soccer practice. Yet he has surprisingly little screen time here, in a role which he reportedly gained 50 pounds here. 

There’s a really terrific contrast between his character and DiCaprio’s, and it’s something I wish the plot-heavy film focused a little more on. Both stars, however, are upstaged by Mark Strong, who gives the film’s most arresting performance as the headstrong, arrogant Hani. Given the film’s final resolution, I wish we spent more time with his character.

Ultimate showdown with the terrorists – which involves a potential recorded beheading – feels both contrived and tasteless, and really lets down the momentum the film had built up to that point.

Body of Lies is a film I’m willing to praise more for its intentions than for what actually unspools on the screen. 

There is, certainly, a lot of good here, and while I’m not sure it’s enough to make up for deficiencies in the script I was never bored and could genuinely appreciate the craft and restraint that went into the film.

Similar ground was covered to similar effect in this year’s Traitor, and to far greater effect in Stephen Gaghan’s hugely underrated Syriana.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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