Outcast (2014)

A4BD7AE7-38C1-4DC1-8E91-E85E1E57919E copy‘Almighty God, in my hour of need be with me.’

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:
‘I’m thirsty’
‘Sake?’
‘No, I meant it, I really want a drink’
*Silence*

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*

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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.

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Left Behind (2014)

PHiJa5lw94DHlk_1_mCashing in on the runaway success of The Leftovers, Left Behind fills in the narrative gap from that series. Whereas The Leftovers covers the tedious goings-on years after a mass disappearance, this film deals with the tedious immediate aftermath. And you know a film is bad when it makes you yearn for the deft writing touch of Damon Lindelof.

This is a straightforward disaster movie, but one with sledgehammer religious overtones. The makers seem to have watched Airplane! and interpreted it not as a disaster movie spoof, but more as a ‘how to’ guide.

Nic Cage plays a pilot with the mandatory Complicated Home Life. Still inexplicably dead sexy to girls despite looking like a melting waxwork of himself from 20 years ago, he’s drifting apart from his bible bashing wife, so he consoles himself by plowing through more air hostesses than Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. Whatever works. He’s even so keen to avoid a family gathering that he leaves his daughter at the airport and makes up a ‘last minute job’ so he can fly to London to see a U2 concert. Now I hate parties as much as the next man but U2? He must be really desperate.

When dealing with big spiritual themes and impending disaster it would be easy to lapse into parody, and this film isn’t going to disappoint. One of the opening scenes sees a woman at the airport pick up a book called ACTS OF GOD and immediately get into a theological debate with Nic’s daughter that even Russell Brand would deem ’a bit 6th form common room’ – ‘If God loves us all so much why doesn’t he STOP these disasters, eh??’ BOOM. Book Cage Jr on Big Questions with Nicky Campbell.

The passengers themselves seem to be flying to an overseas caricature convention because it’s a veritable Noah’s Ark of cinema stereotypes. All human life is here: a Texas oil baron, a needlessly aggressive dwarf, a recovering drug addict and a devout Muslim – yeah, it’s not looking good for you mate. There’s also a blandly hunky and bafflingly well-known news reporter who engages in some tiresome low-level flirting with Nic’s daughter and looks set to be an unwelcome presence throughout the flight. Oh, and Jordin Sparks is onboard too, although when the cabin later depressurises she doesn’t even ask ‘how am I gonna breathe with no aiiiir?’ Seriously. It’s this kind of lazy scriptwriting that’s symptomatic of the film’s malaise as a whole.

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Anyway. We’re not far into the flight when disaster strikes. A brief rumble, the lights flicker, and then suddenly there’s going to be a few in-flight meals going uneaten. Panic, and unintentional hilarity, quickly ensues because the disappeared leave their discarded clothing behind, leaving people sobbing uncontrollably over what look like particularly slapdash Blue Harbour displays – I don’t like belted chinos with deck shoes either but I wouldn’t lose my shit over it. It’s the same back at ground level with random disappearances leaving driverless cars crashing (even a good twenty minutes after it happens) and the streets descending into scenes like Black Friday at Asda. Then it’s terror at 30,000 ft because almost immediately the plane starts exhibiting a whole checklist of Random Technical Problems which means they’re going to have to head back and try to crash land. Half Nic’s family may have gone, and he may be about to plunge to his fiery death, but it looks like that U2 concert is off after all. Every cloud, eh?

We’re a good halfway through the film before anybody stumbles to a conclusion about what may have happened because apparently, despite Nic being married to a batshit Christian fundamentalist, and most of the driverless cars having Jesus fish on the bumper, nobody has ever heard of the Rapture. It’s only when the recovering drug addict recalls something about it from church camp years ago that the pieces fall into place – ‘Tell us more!?’, demand the cabin. ‘Oh, I can’t really remember, because, you know…’ *syringe gesture* she replies. Looks like she picked the wrong day to stop doing smack.

By this point anybody still watching will surely be praying for forgiveness because it’s quite parodically bad, right down to the crudely photoshopped family portrait that makes regular appearances. And the moment where Nic lurches to the truth by flicking through a disappeared flight attendant’s diary and seeing the words BIBLE STUDY in block caps is a hall of fame forehead slapper even by his exalted standards. It’s also so oppressively pro-Christianity that it would turn Richard Dawkins to self harm. So at least it’s got that going for it.

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Cheaply made, poorly scripted, and risible in every respect, it’s another depressing addition to the bulging Shit Nic canon. At one point the (un-raptured) church pastor says of his sermons ‘I knew all the words but I didn’t believe them.’ And so it goes too for the script in another film where Cage is, quite literally in this case, on autopilot.

TL;DR: biblically awful

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

300_141757To mark the 25th anniversary of its cinema release – a Criterion edition must surely be on the cards – I’m revisiting cult Cage classic Vampire’s Kiss. The late 80s and early 90s were a troubled time for Nic – his career wasn’t one long succession of critical and commercial smashes like it is today [citation needed] and Vampire’s Kiss was one of a trio of inexplicable misfires, along with Fire Birds (Top Gun, but with helicopters) and Zandalee (erotic thriller co-starring Judge Reinhold) to be released around this time.

Nic plays Peter Loew – a sleazy literary agent by day, and even sleazier womaniser by night. Events take a turn for the sexual when he gets an erection whilst trying to shoo a bat out of his apartment (yep, this film is literally batshit). The next night he pulls Jennifer Beals and before you know it he’s down to his socks. And when Nic’s down to his socks you know what time it is – it’s ACTING time. Flashdance proceeds to chow down on his neck but the next morning she’s vanished quicker than her own topline film career.

Almost immediately Peter begins to feel rundown and anxious, eventually convincing himself that he’s become a vampire. And it’s here that the psychodrama, and the acting, really begin. In a searing yet subtle critique of the yuppie lifestyle, Peter has been metaphorically sucking people’s blood for years, but now he’s doing it for real. Truly this film is a ringing endorsement of the Garth Marenghi maxim ‘subtext is for cowards.’

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What follows is a masterclass of kamikaze acting – he’s taking the film down with no survivors. Nic wheezes, lurches, cackles and gurns his way from one scene to the next. He terrorises his secretary, and in a plotline which even the makers of the Twilight saga would deem ‘a bit pedestrian’ he genuinely spends a good 50 minutes of the film harassing her with increasing vigour until she finds a crucial misplaced file. Yeah, vampires may be pure evil, but they’re sticklers for administrative integrity too. As his behaviour becomes more debauched and debased we’re left to question whether his transformation is happening at all, or if it’s just the result of mescaline-induced hallucinations. Certainly I felt like I must be hallucinating watching it, and whichever lousy Hollywood fatcat saw the treatment for this and thought it had ‘solid gold hit’ written all over it DEFINITELY was.

The pace may be funereal, the storyline illogical, and the direction diabolical (the director only has one piece of stock footage of traffic in New York which he uses about half a dozen times) but Cage is never less than intensely watchable – this is the stuff YouTube compilations are made of. Even by his own standards Nic makes one of the most bizarre accent choices of his career, unveiling a unique hybrid of Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan and C Montgomery Burns, with a dash of Engerlish thrown in for good measure. In one key scene he eats a live cockroach – not only a Method tour de force, but also one which allowed Nic to exorcise some childhood demons, as in later years he would recount that he used to have nightmares that his mother’s head was attached to the body of a cockroach.

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When asked to describe the film himself Nic thoughtfully comments ‘It’s not a film that can or should be analysed. It’s like a bad dream or a scary painting. People either hate it or absolutely love it – both viewpoints are valid.’ The New Yorker were slightly less charitable, noting ‘Cage delivers a remarkable portrait of a completely obnoxious jerk’, with fellow late 80s hellraiser Jim Carrey adding ‘He’s really talented, but what the fuck is he doing?’ That’s a question that has vexed seasoned Cage watchers for years, and never more so than here.

There are three archetypal Cage performances. The first is where a director and Cage are in perfect harmony, his maniacal energy and maverick instincts reined in and utilised to maximum effect. The second is where he’s on autopilot – not so much phoning it in as sending a sloppily spelled text. The third is where Nicolas is uncaged – he destroys the film from within with a blizzard of demented tics and untamed overacting. This falls squarely in the latter camp – he’s less Bram Stoker and more Ham Stoker.

Over the years Nic has ended more film careers than McCarthyism, and this was pretty much a stake through the heart of the celluloid careers of all involved. Jennifer Beals was barely spotted on the big screen again, and first time director Robert Bierman can more recently be found directing episodes of The Bill and Holby City. Over two decades on however, and the man himself continues to rise from the cinematic dead to terrify audiences, baffle critics and bleed one film studio after another dry.