Hayden Christensen speaks for most viewers in the opening line of Nic Cage’s Crusades epic. Christensen’s Jacob and Cage’s Gallain are cutting a bloody swathe through 12th century China – this much damage hasn’t been done to East West relations since Dave Whelan and Malky Mackay went for a night out to Wigan’s Imperial Pagoda restaurant and engaged in some friendly ‘banter’ with the staff. They bloody love it.
Looking like a League 2 footballer who’s gone to Supercuts requesting an Olivier Giroud that’s gone slightly awry, Jacob is happily slashing, stabbing and decapitating his way through extras. Gallain on the other hand sports the world-weary expression of somebody who’s just clocking in and doing the bare minimum – he really isn’t getting any job satisfaction ‘spilling blood for hypocrite priests’ anymore.
Flash forward three years and the wizened emperor has succession on his mind. His two sons are like yin and yang (aren’t they always?) Tired of years of war and bloodshed he gives the emperor’s seal to his younger peace loving son, much to the disgruntlement of his more bloodthirsty, proactive older son Shing – despite counsel to the contrary he isn’t too sure that Shings can only get better. Sensing his brother will be pretty pissed off by this, the emperor elect swiftly does one before Shing kills his dad and hotfoots it in pursuit with the Black Guard in tow.
Meanwhile in a particularly rustic Brewdog somewhere, Christensen is ruminating on the horrors he committed in the past. And when he’s not thinking about the Star Wars prequels he remembers some of them bad murders he done too. He’s now addicted to opium – ‘mmm, so Moorish!’ (hang on, that was Spain not China, wasn’t it) and spends his time getting into bar brawls that inevitably end in Spartacus-style piss humiliation.
Anyway. His and the boy emperor’s paths cross and Poochie asks him to help navigate safe passage back to the capital on the basis that ‘our lives and the future of our kingdom depend on your wits.’ They both agree they’re probably fucked then, but Jacob agrees anyway in return for coin and spiritual redemption of some kind as a cross country pursuit ensues. But they’re covering nowhere near as many miles as Christensen’s accent, veering as it does between English and Oirish with alarming regularity – wrong kind of paddy, Hayds, this is China not Dublin.
With the guards still after him they eventually take refuge in a brothel:
‘No, I meant it, I really want a drink’
Hold on, Nic Cage is hardly in this! This is bullshit.
Fear not though. As it becomes clear those pesky sex workers weren’t after his lucky charms but have betrayed him, and with guards surrounding the place, the mysterious White Ghost rides to the rescue. Now with only one eye, and carrying a rental snake he uses to groom his beard, Cage acts the bloody doors off as he plays a bizarre hybrid of SuperHans and Withnail.
This performance is incredible.
Bellowing ‘where’s my wine!?’ and bandying about nonsense similes such as ‘guards are as much use as flies on a farting goats arse’, it’s lucky that his swordplay is better than his wordplay as he busts heads and punctuates his own jokes with incongruous booming laughter. But Nic isn’t an Oscar winner for nothing as he displays a few more contemplative moments too:
‘Guards took out my eye, but I still have my hair. Which is all that matters’
*sniggering off camera*
So is this film any good then? Objectively, no. Of course it isn’t. But Cage films exist in a strange netherworld between Hollywood blockbusters and budget B-movies, and judged on those terms it was more watchable than some of the bilge he’s pumped out recently. This is mostly due to Nic’s uproarious cameo. Its most obvious cinematic relative is Johnny ‘Interesting’ Depp in the neverending Pirates franchise. But whereas Depp’s weirdness feels some somewhat studied and contrived, Nic is clearly totally demented and he’s having a ball here.
When he isn’t onscreen the film desperately drags, but maybe it does point towards what he should do from hereon in. Even during his mid 90s heyday when he redefined the action movie, he was always an unconventional leading man. And bar an unlikely Neeson-esque renaissance, his name alone is probably never going to open a film again. But like his hair-a-like Andy Carroll, if sparingly used as an impact substitute in extended cameos – as here or his role in Kick-Ass – there’s no reason why he couldn’t have a productive and enjoyable later career.
If he’s going to do that he needs better service though – the plotting is at least competent, but the story is hackneyed and the direction poor. Nick Powell’s previous work includes choreographing and shooting the fight scenes in the Bourne Identity, but the leaden, repetitive slugfests here have none of that invention or kinetic energy. Apparently he was also the stunt co-ordinator on Doc Martin, so maybe he should have included a scene where Nic gets chased down a country lane by a randy goose. Opportunity missed.