“Who’s Mr Bout?” is the first thing anyone asks on hearing the title. Think Nicolas Cage’s unscrupulous arms dealer in Lord of War (2005) and you have the answer. However, whereas Cage’s fictitiously-named Yuri Orlov, who is based on Mr Bout, the ‘Merchant of Death’, is slightly insane, the real-life character in directors Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary comes across as anything but – initially, more jolly capitalist cashing in on a lucrative shipping market in post-Soviet Russia than abject rogue.

The film is pieced together with homemade video from filmmaking enthusiast Viktor Bout to build a picture of him at home and in ‘the workplace’. It then follows the timeline of events until his arrest in Thailand in 2008, following a US government sting operation that all seems too ‘easy’ to be true. There is also ‘present-day’ commentary from his loyal wife, Alla, as she bravely faces the decision of the US courts as to her husband’s fate – which turns out to be a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence in 2012.

This is an intriguing character study that tries to flesh out the man himself rather than go for the folk devil jugular straight away. We want to know what kind of person gets involved in smuggling arms to notoriously unstable, global factions, and just how one gets embroiled in such a business in the first place? It does well to satisfy these questions while painting a socially-mobile and charismatic man, showing all the classic signs of a true psychopath at play.

Whether intentional or not, there is a sense of familiar falsities, the charlatan who hides behind the ‘family man’ image, in that even his own child – who does not want for anything, admittedly – gets very little quality time with her father who is always elsewhere in the world. Business is obviously his first love and priority. This may be a little callous to state, but it certainly explains how he came to be.

As the film progresses, the video and photos are both fascinating and self-incriminating, as Bout places himself in the situations he was accused of. It’s just slightly disappointing that the final trap, like the average CCTV interview-room scene from Crimewatch or a cop drama, feels so deflating in thrill factor. In fact it’s not immediately clear that Bout has walked into the US government’s net without prompting. In this sense, the film loses some of its momentum building up to that crucial point.

Rightly or wrongly, this film does not fully explore why the US government was motivated, politically, to go after Bout – the main contention that led to a failed appeal against his sentence in 2013 on the grounds of ‘no legitimate law enforcement reason to prosecute’. In terms of two sides of the story, it would have gone to strength the sting impact, maybe by reducing the party-animal footage to build on this throughout? This leaves the viewer wanting with unanswered questions.

That said The Notorious Mr Bout is a fascinating insight into the corruption of free-market capitalism, and what happens when anything goes and borders become irrelevant. As with any such character like Viktor Bout, there is always a sense of a bigger demon at play, so even though he is guilty as sin, you can still empathise with the lure of profit and unregulated opportunity that faced him.