The first thing I noticed was Leo's ratty beard. I remember being afraid that it would look like that for the whole film, and that I would find it distracting. Then I found myself trying to work out the intricacies of the plot, and the beard concern moved to the back of my mind. Then Leo started yelling and shooting at everybody, and I was having a good time.
As far as I can gather, Leo plays CIA operative Roger Ferris, stationed in the Middle East and looking to smoke out a terrorist leader in Jordan. In order to do this, he has to make nice with a security head named Hani (Mark Strong, in a smooth, refined performance). Ferris' commander, of sorts, is the sinister Ed Hoffman, hilariously played by Russell Crowe. This is Crowe as a fat guy with a gray wig, like his role in Michael Mann's The Insider.
Ferris is frustrated, and he gets more irritated as things go along. He has an idea to make up a fake terrorist organization in order to force a crazy terrorist leader named Al Saleem out of hiding. His crankiness increases due to incompetent and sloppy assistants, and constant interference from Hoffman--which means we get Leo yelling and sneering a lot, which equals movie goodness.
Crowe has sinister fun as Hoffman, who spies on Ferris with satellite cameras. Scott does a beautiful job of showing the contrasts in Hoffman's life. At one point, he's sitting on his boat in the United States, decked out in pajamas and chatting on the phone with Ferris, who is embroiled in major, bloody chaos overseas.
One of the film's funniest moments comes when Hoffman is having a moment of major urgency with Ferris while taking his little, not-very-amused daughter somewhere in his car. The moment illustrates just how much technology allows people--including CIA operatives--to be physically hands-off, yet very involved.
The film gets a bit conventional in spots. Ferris' friendship with a local woman (Golshifteh Farahani) feels more like a desperate plot device than essential storytelling. Also, there were times when I wasn't sure who was getting killed or chased. It's one of those movies where you wait urgently for characters to share details after something's happened, just so there can be some clarification. Sometimes they help out, and sometimes they don't.
A big "BOO!" goes out to the film's near-finale, during which a character swoops in to save another character's ass at the last second. The timing is ridiculous, and it hurts the film's credibility to an extent. I'm not saying that the film required a totally bleak ending; I'm saying that the way the film chooses to avoid total darkness is overly contrived.
Despite this flub, there's no doubt that Scott is a master when it comes to action scenes. When the bullets, missiles, etc., fly in this film, it's exciting stuff.
DiCaprio is good in this sort of role. Ferris is charming, a little sleazy and, yes, mad 90 percent of the time. His work here is a little like his star turn in Blood Diamond, but with a different accent. DiCaprio brings a nice seriousness to his roles in action movies--even when his facial hair almost gets in the way.