(CNN) -- Three years after his Crusades epic "Kingdom of Heaven," director Ridley Scott returns to the shifting sands of the Middle East with "Body of Lies."
Russell Crowe, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio share a rare scene together in Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies."
It's a high-tech but earnest spy thriller, which comes in roughly midway between the geopolitical pretensions of "Syriana" and the action-speaks-louder-than-words thrust of the "Bourne" movies.
Yes, there are a couple of chase scenes, but Scott rarely shifts into high gear.
You couldn't ask for a more alarming declaration of noble intent than the authentically scraggly black beard Leonardo DiCaprio sports as Roger Ferris, CIA point man in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Dubai and other spots in the Levant. Ferris does shoot terrorists when pressed, but he'd sooner talk to them. You get the feeling this guy wouldn't pass certain folks' patriot tests (he speaks fluent Arabic, too), though he suffers mightily over the course of two hours.
On the other hand Russell Crowe is relaxed and kicking up his heels as Ed Hoffman, Roger's Langley supervisor and often enough "the eye in the sky," keeping his thumb on Ferris through more of those scarily efficient satellite tracking systems we keep seeing in movies this year.
If Roger is a not-so-closet liberal, Hoffman's definitely in the Cheney wing of the foreign policy spectrum. "You need to decide which side of the cross you're on," he warns Ferris. "I need nailers, not hangers." Watch DiCaprio and Crowe offer their take on the film »
Scott fielded flak from some quarters for turning Somalis into cannon fodder in "Black Hawk Down," but steered a more politic course in "Kingdom of Heaven." In this film, it is a given that there is a real jihadist threat to the West.
The movie begins with extremists stepping up a terror campaign with bomb blasts across Europe. But screenwriter William Monahan, who also wrote "Kingdom of Heaven," follows the David Ignatius novel in suggesting there is a smarter way to counter the radicals than pre-emptive strikes. (Monahan likes these murky waters; he won a screenwriting Oscar for "The Departed.")
Hoffman's bludgeoning shoot-first style is contrasted with the longer-term strategy of Jordanian intelligence chief Hani (British actor Mark Strong), who advocates bribery as a more effective tool than torture in pursuing the terrorist leader Al-Saleem.
Strong's impressive, silky-smooth performance makes this idealized figure more credible than he might have been. Hani's one requirement for cooperation with Ferris is that he never tell a lie -- which is a bit rich in the circumstances. He might as well ask a camel to tap-dance on its hind legs.
There's also a trite love story between Ferris and Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), a nurse whose main function is to prove that Arabs aren't just people, they're also convenient pawns when it comes to engineering a good old-fashioned melodramatic ending. Scott milks the fear factor in much the same nightmare scenario Jason Bateman suffered in "The Kingdom." iReport.com: Share your thoughts on 'Body of Lies'
Before it gets to the climax, however, "Body of Lies" offers a long, elaborate setup -- involving ingenious computer hackery and a not very believable sting operation that creates a rival for Al-Saleem. Unfortunately, there isn't enough in the way of a payoff.
Crowe (in his fourth picture with Scott) and DiCaprio (his first) play well off each other, but it's a pity they're on opposite sides of the globe for most of the action. There's much too much satellite relay and not enough face time.
You can see the difference when Ferris confronts Hoffman in a rare trip home. DiCaprio's on Crowe like a boxer. "Lose some weight, you do this professionally," he scolds as he tips him over in his chair.
It's a surprising, spontaneous moment, and who knows if DiCaprio wasn't having some fun at his rather full-bodied co-star's expense? At any rate, it feels like the truest exchange in the film. The rest boils down to an op-ed in desert fatigues.
"Body of Lies" is rated R and runs 128 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
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