‘Body of Lies': Desert Norm, By Kurt Loder

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in a fairly average action flick.

Russell Crowe is always an interesting actor to watch, even in the oddly uninvolving “Body of Lies,” his fourth film with director Ridley Scott. Crowe plays Ed Hoffman, a bluff, baggy CIA strategist with an earpiece permanently wired to his head to allow constant contact with Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), his on-the-ground anti-terrorist agent over in the badlands of the Middle East. Hoffman — for whom cell-phone connectivity is never a problem — goes about his devious long-range shot-calling from his Langley office, from his front lawn, even in the midst of tending to his kids; and Crowe, with 50 extra pounds and an Arkansas accent packed onboard for the part, plays him as a win-at-all-costs cynic, but also as a man who has his reasons, some of them very good ones. It’s a complex and entertaining characterization, and the movie could have used a little more of it.

Instead, the picture sticks mainly with Ferris as he dodges explosions, trades gunfire, and fends off savage attack dogs and blood-thirsty torturers — the usual action-spy stuff — in his quest to nail a bin-Laden-like terror chieftain named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), with Hoffman second-guessing him from afar (and sometimes, with puzzling suddenness, from up-close, too) every step of the way. DiCaprio brings his intense squint and some new beardage to the role, but even after we’ve been told that Ferris speaks fluent Arabic, knows and respects the local culture and can thus pass as a jihadi for undercover purposes, it’s still difficult to imagine this particular star passing as anyone other than Leonardo DiCaprio.

The movie gets a welcome shot of fresh charisma, however, when Ferris is assigned to take over the CIA shop in Amman, and has to coordinate with the Jordanian intelligence boss, an unexpectedly elegant figure named Hani (the excellent Mark Strong, currently fighting an uphill artistic battle in “RocknRolla”). Hani is a cosmopolitan with a taste for Savile Row suits, seductive women and decidedly un-Islamic nightlife; but he’s also a cold-eyed pro, and he agrees to cooperate with Ferris on one condition: “Never lie to me.” Naturally, with Hoffman pulling the big strings, a major lie is soon forthcoming when it’s decided to try to lure Al-Saleem out of hiding by setting up a fake rival terrorist ring using a blameless local architect as a fall guy. Ferris, a spook with an unfortunate and not especially convincing tendency toward humanist idealism, is appalled by the plan — the architect will surely be marked for death. But orders are orders (he’s not that much of an idealist). Hoffman, for his part, couldn’t care less about the architect; Al-Saleem is his only concern.

In the midst of all this, Ferris becomes smitten with a beautiful nurse named Aisha (the charming Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). Given that any physical contact between an unmarried man and woman — even a handshake — is forbidden in Aisha’s society, and that an awkward dinner overseen by her disapproving sister would seem to promise little romantic future, Ferris persists in coveting her. This is the sort of plot contrivance that gives plot contrivances a bad name.

Ridley Scott knows his way around an action sequence, and he brings off the big ones here with a gratifying minimum of CGI. But despite the plenitude of roaring fireworks and hell-bent chases and all-seeing eye-in-the-sky technology (yet again!), the movie suffers from a strange lassitude: no matter how energetically the characters tear around the desert or barrel through the teeming souks, we remain underwhelmed. The picture itself never goes anywhere.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “RocknRolla,” and “City of Ember,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Body of Lies.”

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.