Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)

When Nic Cage teamed up with Werner Herzog for a re-imagining, if you will, of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant expectations were low, but nowhere near as low as those of Ferrara himself. Phlegmatic as ever, he declared: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar and it blows up.”

51vlavgBIsLWe open with a shot of a lone snake in the water. Film students may recognise this as some kind of metaphor. Pull back and it’s revealed we’re in a flooded jail cell and a prisoner is drowning. Of course Nic isn’t just going to rescue the prisoner straight away, he’s got to call said prisoner a “shit-turd” before launching into a tortuous monologue about not wanting to ruin his $55 Swiss cotton undies. Then finally he makes the two foot leap down to rescue the prisoner – don’t do it Nic!

Such an act of bravery is rewarded when he gets the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of “extreme valour in the line of duty”… by jumping down a two foot sheer drop. But hang on, the film isn’t called Good Lieutenant, is it? Cut to the doctor’s surgery and the first of many dramatic bombshells is dropped: Nic will suffer “moderate to severe back pain,” possibly for the rest of his life. This news pushes Nic over the edge, the switch in his brain marked ACTING is flipped, and all of a sudden he’s Good Nic Gone Bad. At this juncture I should point out his character is called Terence – even the name exudes pure evil.

Anyway, Nic is investigating the execution-style murder of a New Orleans family. An investigation that will lead him into the murky world of drugs, protection rackets, prostitution, gambling, and most chillingly of all, Xzibit trying to act. But first we’ve got Nic’s crack addiction to deal with. He jumps a couple outside a club, pins them against the wall and then takes a honk on the girlfriend’s crackpipe. So far, so routine. But it soon develops into one of the most disturbing scenes in modern cinema as they start rutting against the car whilst Nic launches into some semi-incomprehensible sex banter: “Did your Daddy watch you in the high school play? Did he buy you clothes for school?” he enquires, before presumably blowing his beans when they move on to discussing the curriculum in-depth. Truly the image of Nic’s sex face, resembling as it does a leathery old baseball mitt with a couple of eyeballs glued to it, in the throes of sexual and dramatic ecstasy is one I will never expunge from my brain.

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Back to the investigation and Nic’s on the case quicker than Bangkok Dangerous to DVD. He’s bumping fists with black people, bandying about nonsensical insults (chicken shit honk), threatening witnesses and pulling out old women’s respirators during interrogation. He may not play by the rules, he may not even be able to pronounce New Orleans properly, but damn, does he get results. Meanwhile his paunchy partner Val Kilmer spends the entire film staring wistfully into the middle distance, wondering where his career, and his looks, went. But Nic’s upsetting too many people, taking too many risks and too many drugs, and before you can say ‘predictable plot twist’, he’s off the case. Turns out he doesn’t even get results. Oh well, at least it gives him more time to reignite the chemistry with lantern-jawed Latina lovely Eva Mendes which so enlivened Ghost Rider.

Before long Nic is at his lowest ebb, hallucinating iguanas on his coffee table (Iguana-cam being the next leap forward in cinema technology after 3D) and accidentally snorting heroin. Now when asked to depict spiralling drug addiction, most actors might go into rehab and spend time studying other addicts. Nic seems to have taken an altogether different route: he’s studied Danny De Vito’s performance as The Penguin in the DVD of Batman Returns. The nasal delivery, the hunched shoulders – it’s all there. But despite all these afflictions – and a sub-plot involving looking after his dad’s dog, in what I can only assume is an attempt to cash in the success of Turner and Hooch – Nic has a plan to right all these wrongs and solve the case. A plan which hinges on his lucky crackpipe. And a lot more ACTING.

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All the while this was happening I endured a raging internal dialogue: “Is this actually any good? Am I watching a good film!?” When Nic is involved, the answer would normally be an emphatic no. He hasn’t troubled the fourth star in Empire Magazine since 2002’s Adaptation. His tax returns and his hairline have garnered more column inches than any of his films. But here his ability to chew through scenery quicker than Hurricane Katrina is perfect for the character and indeed for Herzog’s devil-may-care direction. Just as New Orleans is rising from the wreckage, here we see Cage rising from his cinematic slumber, gesticulating wildly, cackling maniacally and reminding us all (well some at least) what we’ve been missing.

As a film it perfectly mirrors both actor and director: at once bravura, unpredictable, scintillating and totally demented.

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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.

Dying Of The Light (2014)

dying-of-the-light-98761-poster-xlarge-resizedNic Cage’s latest is yet another film which has been released simultaneously on VOD to stop riots in Cineworld foyers around the world when it inevitably sells out. Dying of the Light seeks to answer an important philosophical question: how bad does a film have to be for even Nic Cage to disown it? Its troubled gestation saw director Paul Schrader and the headline cast refuse to promote it in protest at pesky studio meddling.

Cage plays CIA special ops maestro turned desk jockey and ace after dinner speaker Evan Lake. “People think we’re all backstabbers watching porn and tapping phones!!” he booms at a nonplussed room of new recruits. He’s no Peter Ustinov, and the toastmaster makes a mental note to book Sir Steve Redgrave instead for his next motivational talk.

Lake isn’t happily coasting to retirement though – he wishes he was still out there in the field. The past haunts him like bad reviews haunt Gerard Butler and he can’t expunge the memory of the one who got away: terrorist Mohammad Banir. Or ‘tourist’ as Nic insists on pronouncing it in his ongoing War On Enunciation.

Lake thinks Banir escaped in an operation that went south 20 years ago, because although presumed dead ‘the corpse didn’t have a head’ (and there’s obviously no other way to I.D. a body). The trauma of that day left him with a Holyfield ear and turned his hair whiter than the crowd at a Belle and Sebastian gig, and things only get worse when his GP informs him he’s now facing his toughest foe yet: DEMENTIA.
“You will be subject to overreactions, inappropriate reactions and blank spells” advises Dr Spaceman.
“But that’s enough about my acting style, what are the symptoms of the illness?” deadpans Nic. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Word gets back to Lake that Banir is alive but no so well in Mombasa, as he’s suffering from a life-ending hereditary anaemic condition and being treated by a Romanian quack. He wants to go out there and finish what he started, but after some semi-incomprehensible trash talking with the crusty old head of the CIA – “You have your head so far up Obama’s ass you can’t see anything except shit” – he’s off the force and he’s gone rogue. Of course he has.

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What follows is a fairly low stakes game of trans-continental cat and mouse as a terminally ill man tracks his terminally ill enemy across the globe. Nic employs undercover chops not seen since Team America as dons a fake beard, glasses and an Aleksandr Meercat accent to confront his nemesis for a final, wheezing, tedious philosophical face-off.
“The only hope for Islam now is social justice. Have you read any of my work? I publish sometimes on the internet.”
“A social justice blog?? I’m terminally ill, not suicidal” Nic replies.

Unsurprisingly the film is a shambles, but its hard to ascertain how much of that is down to post production fiddling. Cage films are rarely without weird tonal shifts, and Shrader’s directorial career has been fairly scattergun – from the creepy as fuck Auto Focus, via having his Exorcist prequel shitcanned, and casting sex bore posterboy James Deen in the near universally derided The Canyons.

Sometimes it threatens to be a meditative character study, pondering on mortality and revenge, before taking a hard right into reactionary politics and B movie ultraviolence. And what looks like being a thoughtful, ambiguous ending is quickly sacked off in favour of Nic sporting a collarless leather jacket for a generic shootout.

Cage’s performance, whilst intensely watchable, is all over the place, though it’s good to see he’s read Russell Crowe’s memo and is acting his age for once. Never knowingly underplaying it, he’s a mess of nervous tics, incongruous booming laughter, with the odd contemplative moment thrown in. Seriously, this performance has more layers than a Taste The Difference lasagne.

As a film it sums up Nic’s metier in microcosm: decent ideas, moments of promise, and genuine talent turded up the wall. His career still seems to be stuck in the nosedive it went into in Left Behind, and his next film is going to have to do something pretty special to arrest that decline. Next on his roster is Outcast, in which he plays a samurai with a topknot, an indeterminate accent, and a lazy eye. SHIT.

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

Joe (2013)

joe-movie-posterNearly 20 years since he won an Oscar for Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance [subs plz check] Nic Cage is probably more infamous for chain-buying castles and a hairline more unstable than the Middle East than his undoubted acting chops. Bar the brief Recagessance of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans and Kick-Ass, the combination of a crippling tax bill and the world’s least discerning agent have seen Nic mired in the bargain bin of despair in 5USA fare like Stolen, Trespass and Justice.

And after a promising early career in which film festival favourites like All The Real Girls launched a pre-fringe Zooey Deschanel on a career path where she has consistently charmed moviegoers and critics alike (SHUT UP), David Gordon Green’s C.V. has taken a similarly dispiriting turn into tiresome stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) and championing the fathomless comic appeal of Danny McBride. But with Joe, the two wayward talents have combined to create a dark, nuanced, thoughtful mini masterpiece.

Cage stars as the titular Joe. A rugged, brooding, outdoorsman with a drink problem, a plaid problem, a Brillo pad beard and the haunted expression of a man just back from a paintballing weekend that went south – he’s essentially Ray Mears without the sense of whimsy. Joe makes his living in deforestation – filling trees with poison so they can later be cleared. But is it just the trees that are filled with poison or is it also Joe? Throughout his career Nic has never shied away from a sledgehammer metaphor, reasoning that subtlety is like a Levellers fan: it won’t wash. And just to clear up any ambiguity he goes on to add ‘These trees are weak. They’re not good for anything’ before wrestling a snake because he’s not afraid to grab life, or his enemies, by the throat.

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He takes under his wing 15 year old drifter Gary – the son of an abusive father with anger issues of his own, he becomes a surrogate son to Joe and the two immediately form a strong if slightly uncomfortable bond. Now a partially reformed ex-con, Joe is basically a decent man constantly battling to suppress the bubbling volcanic rage within, which could erupt at any moment like Mount ACTOR. Whilst trying to mentor Gary down the right path, events, and a local hick, inevitably conspire against him. Though the calm and monotony of everyday rural working life is punctuated with moments of sudden, shocking violence Joe counsels Gary that violence is the problem, not the solution, and that ‘restraint is the only thing that keeps me alive.’

It’s the relationship between these two leads which is the heartbeat of the film – Cage’s natural world-weary, curiously equine sorrowfulness being the perfect counterpoint to Tye Sheridan’s more idealistic dreamer. And Gary Poulter as Gary’s father Wade is terrific – a wretched and deplorable man, he flits effortlessly between extreme weakness and sickening aggression.

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This being a Cage joint there are plenty of weird tonal shifts, baffling subplots, and disturbing psychosexual interludes. For instance Joe has a running vendetta against the dog at the local cathouse because, like Poochie in the Simpsons, he’s too proactive and totally in his face (’that dog is an asshole’). So naturally he chooses to set his own dog on it and kill it, whilst he directs a prostitute to fellate him with all the eroticism and sexual intensity of Ed Miliband reading aloud the cooking instructions on a bag of Quorn mince. This is then somewhat incongruously followed by a soft rock soundtracked montage in which Joe and Gary go on a drink-fuelled, laugh riot of a road-trip in search of the escaped Cujo, during which Cage riffs amusingly on his own Method skills by teaching Gary how to look troubled and mysterious in order to attract girls. And of course the bizarre career-long theme of Nic Cage Being Sexually Irresistible To Women continues unabated.

Otherwise though, the film switches seamlessly between illustrating the unrelenting drudgery, simmering ultraviolence and stifling masculine air of life in the Deep South, and isolated lighter moments of camaraderie and kindness.

An uncompromising, unsentimental, slow-burn character study, with a tough, unusually understated central performance and brilliant support, Joe looks set to herald the beginning of The Second Recagessance (until his next straight-to-DVD steamer).

TL;DR: he’s a lumberjack and it’s okay. 8/10.

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.

Red Rock West (1993)

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Nicolas Cage has been in a lot of films, a lot of rubbish films and a handful of good films. Among those good films is an early John Dahl feature called Red Rock West, a western-noir from 1993 that was somehow overlooked for a theatrical release in the US until a cinema owner tracked down the rights and screened it in his theatre a year later to great success.

Red Rock West was written by its director, John Dahl, and his brother Rick and was made in Arizona for a paltry budget of $7million. Columbia Tri-Star purchased the domestic distribution rights and, believing that the film ‘didn’t fall into any marketable categories’ (urgh), decided to release it straight to home video. Fortunately Bill Banning, the owner of the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, wasn’t quite so patronising of his audiences and acquired a cut for his screens where it broke box office records and expanded to a further 8 cinemas in the city.

Cage stars as Michael Williams, a drifter in desperate need of an income since being discharged from the Marines. He finds himself wandering into the town of Red Rock, Wyoming and inadvertently lands a job after answering to the name of ‘Lyle from Dallas’ when posed a question about his presence in town by the bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh). His eyes light up when he’s handed a wad of cash but then soon dim as he’s advised what the job entails; to kill his new employer’s wife (Lara Flynn Boyle).

By this point we’ve already twigged that Williams doesn’t have an ounce of bad in him (he decides against stealing money from an open till in an earlier scene) so it comes as no surprise that instead of killing the unknowing spouse, he warns her of the dastardly plot on her life and accepts a greater sum from her to reverse the deed. He then attempts to skip town knowing full well he isn’t going to kill anyone but is foiled and gets dragged deeper into the fray as the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) arrives to carry out the original plan and soon discovers Cage’s identity theft.

Even in this short synopsis I’ve omitted a few more twists and turns in the plot but only because there are so many and, believe me, they do work. Dahl’s writing and direction, albeit at a formative stage in his career, is assured and brimming with confidence; the story flows at a tidy pace and it looks good too considering the budget constraints.

Thematically Red Rock West often feels like a David Lynch film just without the abstract profundity, now this isn’t taking anything away from what Dahl has achieved, quite the opposite in fact as I found myself constantly comparing it favourably to Lynch’s canon; The labyrinthine plot, the country music soundtrack and the apple-pie protagonist are all found in Lynch’s body of work plus all three leads, Cage (Wild At Heart) , Hopper (Blue Velvet) and Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks) have all worked with him.

Talking of the three leads, they perform their roles with a style befitting the tone and writing of the piece which adds an extra layer of plausibility while the microcosm around these characters is slowly imploding on them. Cage has rarely been better as a good guy, Hopper channels Frank Booth without the depravity and Flynn Boyle kept me guessing all the way with a subtle, charming yet world worn performance. It should also be mentioned that this film gave us the acting debut of Dwight Yoakam (credited as ‘Truck Driver’) and while he was on set he who wrote the closing credits tune just because he could.

It seems incredible that a film as good as this can be discarded so easily because of an off day in the marketing department, still we have to be thankful for people like Banning for getting it the recognition it deserves, however slight. If you’ve not seen the film then I strongly urge you to source a copy at the earliest opportunity as Red Rock West is a buried 90s gem that needs to be unearthed, shined clean and displayed as that thing of rare beauty; a good Nic Cage film.

– Greg Foster

Red Rock West on IMDB
Buy Red Rock West [DVD] [1993]

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

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Directed by: The Pang Brothers

Nicolas Cage is often criticized by critics and fellow actors about his choice of movies, which has meant his career trajectory shows many peaks and troughs. A graphical representation of this would probably look like the heart monitor of a patient being revived after a rather severe cardiac arrest.

‘Bangkok Dangerous’ is missing something; it features an oddly subdued, restrained performance from Cage. Now, I haven’t seen the original 1999 film, also directed by The Pang Brothers, and this remake, Hollywood only in the sense that it opens in Prague, and features Nic Cage; seems rather like a stodgy latter day Seagal arthritic ass kicker that you might pluck from the bargain bin.

Cage plays Joe, a lonely hitman who doesn’t really mind doing his job. Joe was taught four basic rules:

“One: Don’t ask questions. There is no such thing as right and wrong.
Two: Don’t take an interest in people outside of work. There is no such thing as trust.
Three: Erase every trace. Come anonymous and leave nothing behind.
Four: Know when to get out. Just thinking about it means it’s time. Before you lose your edge, before you become a target.”

In Bangkok, just like a conservative sexually repressed middle aged newly divorced man who visits the city, Joe breaks all of his rules. One, he asks his lackey Kong whether or not the people he is paid to kill are bad men, two, he becomes a father figure to Kong, three, he loses his anonymity by dating a deaf woman who works in a chemists, four, falling in love makes him lose his edge.

Kong is the dubious character that Joe picks to be his personal courier who acts as a middle man between the assassin and his employer; in Prague we see that Joe’s courier was a scummy junkie, in Bangkok he picks a pickpocket who preys on gullible tourists. Joe works for Surat, a dangerous ganglord who wants to take control of Bangkok, by assassinating three of his rivals and also an influential politician who wants to clean up the city.

In between the bloody jobs Kong and Joe bond. Joe teaches Kong Wing Chun, a Chinese Martial Art, and they shoot water melons in the back garden of Joe’s rented property. Joe refers to Kong as his student, which is rather lovely of him. Bangkok, a land of vice and loose morals, seems to be the place that melts the icy exterior of Joe’s cold soul. When he grazes his arm fleeing the scene of a kill he sensibly looks for some disinfectant and some painkillers in a chemist, a giddy deaf assistant called Rain tries to help him, eventually he is able to communicate to her what he needs. He asks her out a couple of days later and the two find time to dine out. Cage eats some hot Thai curry, they feed bananas to an elephant in the street, he meets the future Mother-in-law yadda yadda yadda, but their relationship eventually turns sour when Cage spills some muggers’ blood on Rain’s white cashmere top and she gets hysterical, proving that not all Thai women can be wooed by ugly rich foreigners.

Due to Cage’s ungainly physical movements it is a real struggle to picture him as a stealthy assassin going about his business in a covert manner. His limbs flail around like one of those Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubemen. For someone who wants to remain under the radar, he just stands out as a gormless, straggly haired giant amongst the diminutive men of Thailand.

Throughout the duration of ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ I was waiting for Cage to cut loose, for him to reveal some of his much loved eccentricity, but no, he’s cold eyed and dopey the whole way through. Playing it straight is probably the worst thing he could have done. Given that Joe is somebody bound by a strict code, a set of rules that govern his every move; the chaotic blend of emotions that come with love and friendship and the job going awry should have meant that Joe would have psychologically unravelled in reaction to all of his meticulous plans getting torn up. The biggest disappointment of this movie is Cage repressing his natural inclination to go over the top. Yep, that’s what ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ is missing.

– RJW
4/10

Bangkok Dangerous on IMDB
Buy Bangkok Dangerous [DVD]