Thursday, November 29, 2012

Three Kinds of Crazy: Appreciating Nick Cage

Because life can be dreadfully random, here are three short reviews featuring Nicolas Cage. I'm sure it won't be a shock to anyone that in all three he plays deeply disturbed individuals.


Ever find a movie somewhat enjoyable and also kinda reprehensible? That's Kick-Ass, the adaptation of Mark Millar's comic book--a decent enough time complicated by story and morality problems.

The story has two parts. The first is the type of high-concept premise that Millar specializes in: what if a regular superhero-obsessed teen (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), with no superpowers or fighting skills, decided to dress up in a wetsuit and go out there and fight crime? The initial result, a high profile beat down at the hands of some hoods, should be the end of the story. Instead, we go to part two, where Kick-Ass--wetsuit guy's actual chosen superhero name--recovers from his injuries and gets back into the superhero game, improbably becoming a big success and capturing the public's attention.

In this second part of the story, the focus shifts from Kick-Ass to two unrelated heroes, Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Big Daddy, played awesomely by Nick Cage, is basically Batman, minus the restrictions on killing and using guns. Cage gives Big Daddy two sides--a mild-mannered and sometimes visibly disturbed civilian identity, and a dead-on Adam West impression while in costume, making the character almost equal parts incredible and pathetic. Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), the Robin to Big Daddy's Batman, is one of the more problematic fictional characters in film history. She's a sword- and gun-wielding killing machine, foulmouthed like Don Logan...and she's also middle school-aged.

Millar, you see, is largely known for two things. The first is getting his high-concept comic book premises optioned by Hollywood--before Kick-Ass there was the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted, and a half-dozen other properties are currently reported to be in various stages of development. The second is that his stories feature over-the-top displays of violence and sex that are supposed to be "edgy" and suggest that the story has depth, but usually are just shallow provocations to get attention.

Moretz plays Hit Girl well, and there is a scene or two that suggests that Hit Girl is essentially the victim of child abuse by her unhinged father/crimefighting partner, who has forged her into a tiny killing machine. For example:

That line of thought is quickly abandoned to get to the next scene of Hit Girl slicing her way through a room of thugs while calling them all the c-word. It's kind of hard to write up Hit Girl as thoughtful social commentary when Matthew Vaughn's direction works so hard to aestheticize her  killing sprees. (Also, the character's cursing is a pure shock value play--Big Daddy might have made her a killer, but he isn't that foul-mouthed, so it's hard to say that she gets it from him.)

The increase of competence and body count Big Daddy and Hit Girl bring to the table changes the dynamic of Kick-Ass's own storyline, from cautionary tale to wish fulfillment fantasy. The film's final 20 minutes are a complete rejection of its funny, realistic beginning. A sequel's due next year, and the early word is that it will include more "controversial" content (warning: possible SPOILERs in that link) so it's less likely to be interesting. Regardless, Kick-Ass is recommended, with huge reservations.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

The next  film keeps Cage in the superhero milieu, this time as the lead. This sequel finds Cage's Johnny Blaze in an adventure completely divorced from the 2007 original Ghost Rider. Blaze's girlfriend, Eva Mendes? Gone. Peter Fonda's Mephistopheles? Replaced by Ciaran Hinds as "Roarke."The original's U.S. (by way of Australia) setting? Replaced with a generic "Eastern Europe."

The one substitution that seemed like it would be an upgrade was in the director's chair, where Mark Steven Johnson (probably best known as the artiste behind the helm of the Ben Affleck Daredevil) was replaced by the high-octane duo of Neveldine and Taylor, the team behind the Crank series and Gamer. In theory, the combination of Nick Cage with a pair of directors who specialize in gonzo, funny, batshit-loco action films should at the very least produce a so-bad-it's-good classic. The stinger to the theatrical trailer promised such fun:

Alas, the Cage/Neveldine/Taylor marriage would prove not to be madcap gold. The plot for Spirit of Vengeance is a pretty cookie-cutter affair: Johnny Blaze, deal-with-the-devil recipient possessed by a fiery vengeance demon, has fled the United States of Australia, and the cast of the first film, to keep the demon away from people. Blaze's idea of isolation is to set up shop in a garage near a populated area in Eastern Europe, because I guess he figures Romanians deserve to be haunted by vengeance demons.

Anyway, wherever he is, it's within short driving distance of a secret monastery where a young Chosen One is being protected from the Devil (Hinds, more or less). Roarke needs the boy so he can have a powerful corporeal form, and the ritual must be done in a special place by a mystical deadline, etc, etc, and so forth. Bon vivant warrior/priest Idris Elba recruits Blaze and the demon within him to protect the boy...because priests recruiting demons makes sense, somehow.

It's hard to put the blame on Cage when most of the actors he's playing against are third stringers or worse--Hinds and Elba are the exceptions, and both are in slumming mode--but a movie like this is dependent on the energy level the lead brings to it. As Blaze, Cage is all over the place--largely the performance is inert, but every once in a while there are moments of manic energy as he fights his transformations into the Rider, moments of derangement in which, to paraphrase Tropic Thunder, he goes full nutjob.  You never go full nutjob.

Of course, the movie isn't called Johnny Blaze--it's called Ghost Rider. Who cares about the alter-ego so long as the super-heroing goes well? Even that gets screwed up here. Whereas the demon in the first film was purely the creation of CGI animators, in the sequel, Neveldine and Taylor opted to use a motion capture performance by Cage as the basis for the CGI. That lead to reports of Cage coming to the set with black contact lenses and self-applied skull makeup and basing his mo-cap performance on the movements of his pet cobras. The end result is strangely static, as many of the action scenes revolve around the Rider just standing there  and posing while a group of thugs attack him. It doesn't help that one of Ghost Rider's big superpowers involves staring at people, and staring ain't terribly cinematic.

As for Neveldine and Taylor, they have a few moments--a scene in which the Rider makes good use of a construction site carries the right tone, and there was some interesting use of 3D, particularly a split-screen phone conversation where each side of the conversation is occurring at a different depth.  Overall, however, the film captures neither the absurdity or the horror it would take to make the story interesting. Not recommended.


I just criticized Cage for making Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance less good, but let's not kid ourselves: that movie was doomed by factors such as a bad script and a budget that was about half the size of the original's. There's only so much one actor can do. In contrast, you have to wonder if a film like Knowing would have had a better chance if a different star was in the lead.

The story goes like this: Cage's son comes across a note a strange young girl put in a time capsule back in the 1950s. The note looks like gibberish--just row after row of numbers--but Cage finds a pattern connecting the numbers to disasters that occurred over the 50 years since the note was put in the time capsule. Cage becomes obsessed, particularly when he realizes that not all the disasters in the note are in the past. Pursuing the note's leads lands Cage in the middle of a harrowing setpiece that served as one of the film's trailers:

As Cage races to learn more about the girl who wrote the note, unravel the note's mysteries, and prevent the predicted disasters, he runs into complications like the indication that his son might have the same kind of psychic whatever-the-heck that led the girl to write the note in the first place. He also keeps running into some strange mute guy. Sounds like an interesting movie, right? The problem is that the film hinges on the lead's quest for the truth, and the strain that quest puts on his sanity.

The lead here is much like the Richard Dreyfus role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We know in that film that Roy Neary isn't nuts when he obsesses about aliens--something is definitely out there, and we know he's seen it. The question for us then is whether, in the act of trying to prove to everyone that he's not crazy, he'll actually drive himself insane. Will his erratic behavior make people who might've helped him dismiss him? What about the toll that his behavior takes on his family, who just want him to be a normal father and husband? Can he keep his mind together long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery?

Now, we've seen roles in which Nicolas Cage's sanity starts to unravel in the face of a great mystery before. We've marveled at his epic freak outs. Indeed, they've even become a meme:


Now, this isn't particularly fair, but once you have a performance like that on your record, it's an obstacle to suspending disbelief in similar roles. Trying to judge it objectively, Cage's performance isn't bad, it's just that whenever he has to rear back to belt out an irrational-sounding declaration like "THE CAVES ARE NOT GOING TO SAVE US!" I found myself saying, "Uh, oh. Here we go again..." and waiting for him to sucker punch someone while wearing a bear suit. In the end, this might be the most distracting casting since Woody Allen cast himself as a lecherous college professor at the same time he was running off with his girlfriend's 21-year-old adopted daughter, and was facing accusations of pedophilia from the break-up. It's hard to suspend disbelief and roll your eyes at the same time.

So I'm left wondering if Knowing could have been more successful if another actor--say, Dennis Quaid or John Cusack--was the dad falling to pieces. Knowing isn't a perfect film by any means--it's difficult to buy into the ending, and the pieces of the plot don't quite fit together--but the film has some interesting ideas, and Alex Proyas's direction is beautiful as ever. Sadly, the film was weighed down by Cage's baggage. Recommended, but it could have been better.

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