By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Do spies ever have bad days away from the office? We don't hear much about secret agents stuck driving kids to soccer games, haggling with divorce lawyers or meeting a girlfriend's family.
How much does that distract from torture sessions and surveillance defending against global terrorism?
The answers are crammed into Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, an anthology of intelligence anecdotes that bites off more than two hours can chew. The movie is a few shoot-outs shy of Syriana's flow-chart dullness, yet lacks the subversive tone that makes Lord of War fun and informational about international gunrunning.
Body of Lies could go either way. Scott almost falls into the Syriana trap, attempting to draw straight lines between ever-changing factors, punched up with a car chase here, a gun fight there. Then he lightens up, with Russell Crowe playing a Mr. Mom CIA agent who can rustle up breakfast while demanding death and Leonardo DiCaprio as an embedded spy falling in love at the darnedest time.
No doubt such people and problems exist, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius emptied his notebook into a novel. Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed) stuffs as much as possible into his adapted screenplay, trotting the globe with so many confusing names and motivations that viewers should bring passports and scorecards.
I get it: Terrorism's roots are everywhere, tended by madmen we can't tell apart. Monahan and Scott spend an hour on that trodden theme before applying it to a worthwhile subplot. From there, Body of Lies achieves purpose, a hook for Scott to hang his indignant view of evil done in the name of safety. It becomes a better movie for that.
Until that point, Body of Lies depends mightily on viewers' belief that DiCaprio's reedy voice and unimposing physique belong to deadly CIA agent Roger Ferris. This is a more physical role than he played in Blood Diamond, and the emotional material was meatier there. But DiCaprio is fully committed despite any obvious limitations, as a good spy would be, I imagine.
Crowe is practically in another movie, with a role that — like his turn in Scott's American Gangster — wouldn't deserve as much screen time if not played by an Oscar winner. Looking paunchy and sounding Southern, Crowe's Ed Hoffman is more a creation for a Barry Levinson satire like Wag the Dog than this film.
Crowe and DiCaprio get a few face-offs, although a more interesting relationship develops between Roger and a Jordanian security czar (an impressive Mark Strong). Their exchanges crystallize the deep distrust and deeper dependency between U.S. and Middle Eastern terrorism fighters. Roger and Ed only fail by acting unilaterally, which is what Scott takes a roundabout path with detours to declare.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.