Lord Of War's opening title sequence would make a nifty anti-gun short on its lonesome. First there's a bullet's-eye trip from an arms factory to an AK-47 in an African war, via crates and smugglers. Then, a trigger-click sends that bullet slamming into the skull of a young boy. It's a genuine shocker.
And it's a helluva moment for the rest of the movie to live up to. Schmaltzy do-goodery could have beckoned. Orlov could have been played as a sneering Bond villain and the issues could have been laid out in the low IQ blacks-and-whites of a simplistic, Oscar-friendly rant.
That's a bullet that Lord Of War dodges with ease. When Cage's Orlov - standing in a cartridge-strewn street - turns to camera and announces that there are enough guns in the world for one in every 12 human beings to have a personal firearm, a lesser movie might take a wander down Po-Faced Alley. Lord Of War is having none of it. Cage just cracks an encyclopaedia-salesman grin and wonders how he's going to go about arming the other 11...
Niccol draws neat turns out of Jared Leto as Orlov's damaged brother and Ian Holm as a sleek rival dealer, but from start to finish, from the hugely quotable voiceovers ("You've got to be fast on your feet - they don't call it gun 'running' for nothing!") to the explosive close calls, this is Cage's movie.
Who else has enough twinkly-eyed charisma to force you to like him as he draws you into a world of amoral liars and psychopathic mass murderers, but packs the thespy clout to leave you in no doubt as to just what a bastard he is? Only Ray Liotta in GoodFellas has managed to pull off a similar trick.
And the GoodFellas comparison runs deeper. Cage doesn't quite claim that he's wanted to be a gunrunner as far back as he can remember, but from early struggles to mid-range success to final downfall, Lord Of War mirrors the moral arc of Scorsese's movie almost exactly. The ultimate tribute to Lord Of War is that it doesn't wilt under the comparison. Far from it, in fact. There's a borderline-brilliant juggling act going on here as Niccol condemns gun dealers while at the same time acknowledging the seductive excitement of the guns themselves and the sheer thrill of watching Orlov do something that he is so undeniably good at.
If the film's got a flaw, it's that the first hour of set-up - with Orlov conning and cheating his way across a thousand borders and building up his business - is marginally more exciting than the second hour, where things start to unravel. But even if the making of the gunrunner is better than the breaking, it only takes a sliver of gloss off a belting grown-up blend of purpose and plot. It's that rarest of things - a message movie you'll want to watch again and again.