Mideast intrigue for dummies

The foot soldiers — and some lieutenants — in the “war on terror” are operating in “Body of Lies,” a superficial but reasonably entertaining new thriller. This one plays like an easier-to-understand “Syriana.”

Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, a CIA agent on the loose in the Middle East. Scruffy-bearded and fluent in Arabic, Ferris can penetrate danger zones better than just about anybody else.

His supervisor, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), knows this, and sends Ferris into a delicate situation in Amman, Jordan. A terrorist safe house is ripe to be explored, if only the meddlesome Hoffman will let Ferris do his job.

The two men seem to represent different approaches to American espionage. Ferris is the guy on the ground, trying to understand the world he’s entered, building relationships and trust with the people there.

Hoffman’s the results man, who wants to be able to hang a “Mission: Accomplished” sign even if it means wrecking a mission in the long run. And since he’s the boss (we know this because he perpetually has a cell phone mouthpiece dangling from his ear), he keeps running roughshod over the best-laid plans.

Perhaps the most sympathetic role in this mess is a Jordanian intelligence chief (Mark Strong) who doesn’t take lies lightly. There’s also a nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) who tends to Ferris’ wounds. He gets wounded a lot in this film (I think DiCaprio has inherited Mel Gibson’s mantle as most-abused movie star), so they manage to get some quality moments together.

DiCaprio is always squinting earnestly, as though ignoring a bothersome rash. He’s easily out-acted by Russell Crowe, who dons gray hair and pot belly to play the suburban dad/sociopathic agent.

Crowe’s breezy performance points to a problem in the movie. Director Ridley Scott uses Hoffman as comic relief, even as we can clearly see the character is a major cause of what’s wrong in the system. Playing it with a twinkle might be some indicator of worldliness, but it seems strangely soulless against the bloodshed that erupts in the rest of the film.

Scripted by “Departed” scribe William Monaghan from a novel by David Ignatius, “Body of Lies” imitates the complications of a classic spy story but actually has a fairly straightforward plot. For this I am grateful, because the film is easy to enjoy as a slick action pic.

But given the subject, we might expect that Scott’s usual techno-sheen would allow a bit more heft — some sense, for instance, that the lethal business of Ferris’ life might take a toll on the character. Don’t look for that kind of depth in this movie, and maybe you won’t be disappointed.

“Body of Lies”

Thriller: A slickly effective thriller about a CIA operative (Leonardo DiCaprio) running an anti-terrorist mission in Jordan, sometimes in spite of the meddling of his results-greedy boss (Russell Crowe). More comprehensible than “Syriana,” this one doesn’t delve too deep beneath the surface.

Rated: R rating is for violence, language

Now showing: Alderwood Mall, Edmonds, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Mountlake, Stanwood, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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