Here’s a fun idea for a running project I’ll do in the next few weeks: Lord knows I pay attention to B movies and that whole low budget world but when Nicolas Cage does them I sit up straight for some reason and am totally present. It’s funny because these days you have formerly high pedigree actors like Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino all doing these second tier flicks simply because of the narrowing gap between what’s released theatrically and what goes directly to VOD or streaming (also they probably have grandchildren to shunt through Yale). That provides galaxies of weird, off the wall content for big league, once A List tough guys to sandbox in and I think it’s wonderful and always have a laugh when people wail and gnash their teeth and go “what happened to my boy’s career” well guess what bubs, they adapted and evolved to the ever shifting landscape of media entertainment and it’s natural. But for some reason Cage fits this B world like a glove and I was aghast to find that looking at his IMDb I’m woefully behind on the recent output, which I plan to fix in these coming weeks and do a series on the wild and wacky stuff he’s been up to, which I’ll dub the “Nic Cage B-Grade Cinematic Universe.”
First up is a slick flick called Hungry Rabbit Jumps from back in 2011, and the American distribution system just has to dumb down innovative titles like that into patronizing nonsense like ‘Seeking Justice’ which they re-titled this as for stateside release and it doesn’t help its case. It’s a fairly straightforward revenge/conspiracy/crime thriller that benefits a lot from the presence of Guy Pearce as the mysterious pseudo-antagonist. Cage plays a regular dude whose wife (January Jones, way younger than Nic in a sneaky trend in people casted as his spouses) is assaulted, and soon after they are approached by Pearce and his fancy suit, who offers to find and kill the assailant for them in return for a small ‘favour,’ collected somewhere down the line one day. They accept but when it comes time for that favour things get sticky and Pearce expects Cage to murder a man who he tells him is a no-good pedophile but really might be someone else. This all leads to the uncovering of a vast secret organization of well placed vigilantes who use the coded phrase ‘hungry rabbit jumps’ to make themselves known and Cage finds himself now intrinsically linked to their operation whether he likes it or not. It’s an interesting premise given the fairly pedestrian treatment but Nic and Guy get some nice tense moments to spar in and there’s enough action to keep pulses above flatline. I still wish they kept that title ‘Hungry Rabbit Jumps’ instead of fucking lame ass ‘Seeking Justice’ though like… come on man, learn how to read a room and support original flourishes like that instead of slapping it with a latter day Seagal level moniker. Three Cages out of five for this one.
Anthony Hopkins has an acting style that I wouldn’t describe as speedy or that of an adrenaline junkie, in most roles anyways. He’s laconic and measured, which makes him an interesting choice to play Kiwi motorcycle enthusiast Burt Munro, a real life dude who made it his mission later in life to break the elusive land-speed record with his bike on Utah’s Bonneville Flats. He rocks the role in Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian though, a charming dramedy that follows him as he faces every obstacle getting there and is then told his bike isn’t up to safety standards to compete. This is one dude who will not be deterred though in the face of any odds, and Hopkins finds the quiet passion and resilience in him on his journey. He meets others along the way including lonely widow Diane Ladd, but this is ultimately his story, a tale of persistence that winds from New Zealand to the flatlands of the States with breezy optimism and faith in the general decency of human beings. Director Donaldson is no stranger to shooting in distinct desert locations of the US, having helmed the early 90’s thriller White Sands. He once again finds himself in a rugged, unconventionally picturesque landscape and makes the most out of it with well staged photography and editing. Hopkins is the spirit of the piece here, a trailblazer who makes history and the lives of those he meets a bit brighter on the way there. This is a sunny film, no one is villainous or deviant and it serves to show the good natured behaviour we’d all like to find in ourselves and each other, as well as the kind of determination and strength of spirit it takes to achieve a goal this impressive, especially in one’s golden years. Great film.
Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.
Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out is a prime example of how to stage an effective thriller, every step of the way and even when things get twisty in a time before every other film had a thunderclap twist midway through. Kevin Costner plays a navy officer operating out of the Pentagon and reporting to the secretary of defence, played by a shady Gene Hackman. He has a stormy affair with mysterious Sean Young, not knowing she is also Hackman’s side chick, and when she turns up dead a whole nightmare of a situation escalates for everyone involved. It’s great fun to see events spiral out of control until everyone is a frantic wreck and we’re just as lost for clues as they are. Then, the pieces slowly fall together and we are blessed with gradual revelation, a few delicious ‘aha!’ moments and one mother of a midway plot twist that lands in the narrative like a screeching cruise missile. Costner is subdued but keen, Hackman is his usual fired up charismatic hotshot, and the film benefits greatly from their crackling collaborate star-power. A knockout supporting turn comes our way from Will Patton, who is unnervingly twitchy as another operative doing his maniacal best to perpetuate a cover up. Maurice Jarre whips up a great score to accent the intrigue, while Donaldson’s direction is surefire skill. A premier 80’s political thriller, one of several launching pads for Costner’s career, and a bitchin’ great time at the movies.