When I am dictator of the world, one of the first laws I shall pass will make it illegal for movie studios to keep giving money to filmmakers whose reputation is based solely on the masterpieces they made 20+ years ago. Though this is not a flawless plan (it would have deprived the world of Short Cuts, among other things), it would at least save us all from watching the painful slide into irrelevance of Sir Ridley Scott, who once upon a time created two of the greatest science-fiction movies of the modern age, Alien and Blade Runner, and since then hasn't made a single film that's any better than "very good" - and a great deal that are much, much worse.

Most of his films are unabashedly average, usually a bit more stylish than most, but just not quite enough to be rightfully called "interesting" (compare this to his brother Tony, whose films are by and large outrageously bad, but are so profoundly stylised as to make "interesting" seem conservative), and his new political thriller Body of Lies meets that description perfectly. Six years ago, maybe, it would have been shocking and exciting to see a film about a CIA operative in the Middle East who learns to his disgust that the US intelligence community would rather play games with the balance of power in that region than work towards counter-terrorism and stable governments. But there have been so fucking many Middle East political thrillers in the last three years, and Body of Lies isn't nearly a smart enough study of geopolitics - to say nothing of its failures as a thriller - to stand out from a very full crowd.

The main character is Roger Ferris, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, stationed in Jordan, under the supervision of Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back in the States. It wouldn't really be worth the trouble to recount what happens to Ferris there; the first half of the movie has essentially no plot whatsoever other than "Ferris gets dicked around by Hoffman while trying to do his job", while the second half is mostly "Ferris screws up royally as soon as he tries to do an end-run around Hoffman". There's also a shockingly out-of-place romantic subplot. Generally speaking, the plot concerns the CIA's attempts to catch notorious terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), with the help of Jordan's counter-terrorism czar Hani Salaam (Mark Strong); but this is very much the kind of movie that's well along the way to its halfway point before anything "happens". I am totally unfamiliar with David Ignatius's book, but William Monahan's adaptation is tremendously light on incident and heavy on setting up the pieces; not unlike watching people playing Risk, and in much the same way I was ready for it to be over hours before it ended.

In principal, this could have been a great look into the culture of the CIA and how much of its policy is nothing but the egomania of men sitting at their desks in Langley, except that Scott is much too detached from the material to breathe much life into it (that, and the fact that the Coen brother's recent Burn After Reading has made it somewhat difficult for any serious-minded spy film to avoid seeming faintly ridiculous). Remarkably for a director who can often keep a film in the air on flashy theatrics for longer than he really should be able to (I may have absolutely hated Gladiator, but it certainly dazzled), Scott has settled for aping what has become the standard model for counter-terrorism thrillers: if you've seen Syriana, if you've seen Traitor, hell if you've seen the opening ten minutes of Eagle Eye, then you've seen pretty much everything there is to see in Body of Lies, with its dramatic bird's-eye-view satellite photography, desaturated wide-angle shots of jeeps in the desert, and cool-blue Washington interiors. There are two things that a thriller must not be: narratively and visually boring. Body of Lies is both of those things.

Really, the only thing that would ever indicate that this was a major release with a hefty budget is the cast: DiCaprio and Crowe tend to announce that a movie is An Event just by their presence. And I'd love to say that they were worth it; in fact, Crowe even is, kind of. Given a role much too small for the fee that I am sure he was paid, the actor plunges full-on into the pudgy Hoffman, man of a carefully-honed Washington accent (Southern, but not too Southern) and bullying, ignorant personality It's obviously a part that appealed to Crowe, who can be a tremendously great actor when he's sufficiently inspired; the film is rarely less boring than when he's onscreen. DiCaprio, surprisingly, barely registers at all - perhaps due to the fiddly character details he's stuck with (a wavery Carolina accent, a scruffy little van dyke beard), he always feels like an actor onscreen.

Most surprisingly of all is the way these two stars are no match for Mark Strong, a British-born actor of Italian-Austrian descent who makes a much more convincing Arab than you'd expect. His Hani is marvelous: soft-spoken and affectionate, but nevertheless dangerous (the way he calls Ferris "my dear" is both sweet and a little bit terrifying). He is magnetic onscreen, and it's a pity that he and Crowe only get one scene together: the sight of those two actors competing for our attention gives the film its strongest breath of life, but only for a moment.

When that moment, or a few others like it, is gone, all that's left is a film with so little personality that it feels like it came from a mold. I'm not sure why Ridley Scott wanted to make this film, but whatever that reason, it never made it from his head to the celluloid. Everything about Body of Lies is obnoxiously typical, and only its pointlessly convoluted series of double crosses in the middle even gives it the semblance of drama.