Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy/curiosity factor: Nicolas Cage stars in a lot of movies, and it can be difficult to sort out the awesome batshit (Drive Angry) from the simply shit-shit (Ghost Rider). Which of his starring roles will feature his true animal spirit, and which will find his insanity dampened by not-quite-bad-enough material? Based on the cover of the DVD and the relatively straightforward-sounding plot (“a happily married family man whose quiet life is turned upside down when his wife is brutally attacked”), Seeking Justice sounds like it might end up in the snooze pile. But with Cage movies, you really never know until you experience it firsthand.
Even the often-helpful Rotten Tomatoes meter is massively unreliable when it comes to Cage: His magnetism must somehow throw off the calculating devices. The absolutely essential Wicker Man remake sits at a lowly 15 percent, and the decent-but-forgettable Matchstick Men is at 82 percent. Seeking Justice currently has a 25 percent rating, with the editorial warning that it’s “nothing more than a typical potboiler.” Our own Nathan Rabin gave it a D-, so I asked him directly what saved it from the worst possible grade. He replied:
It definitely fits my primary requirement for giving an F: It was so fucking awful, it actually made me angry. I was borderline-apoplectic watching the entire film, yet I think I refrained from giving it an F (instead choosing what our commenters not-inaccurately refer to as ‘the gentleman’s F’) because it had all the elements for being a truly transcendent exercise in Nicolas Cage craziness. First and foremost, it had Cage, with preposterous facial hair and a predilection for quoting Shakespeare. But it also has what should be an agreeably loopy premise involving a massive conspiracy that makes less and less sense the more you think about it, clumsily integrated New Orleans locations (all that’s missing is Justin Wilson shouting ‘I guarontee!’), offensively lazy performances by January Jones and Guy Pearce, and even a climax that takes place in an abandoned mall.
That reply, I will admit, actually made me more excited to watch Seeking Justice.
The best quote they could come up with for the DVD’s back cover (“Nicolas Cage and January Jones are a dynamite fit”) is from a website called moviesharkdeblore.com, which rolls right off the tongue. (The site’s reviews also appears to be written solely for the purpose of generating blurbs for DVD covers.) But I pressed on, because even in the worst Cage movie, there are generally at least a few moments in which the man himself emerges from the character, transcending celluloid and all actors before him. This is not necessarily a good thing—I’m not a slavish Cage fan. But it is almost always something to behold. Oh, and I’m desperately hoping there’s a character named “Justice” who needs to be found. And one more thing: The director, Roger Donaldson, also directed the Tom Cruise-is-a-bartender flick Cocktail and the pretty-decent Jason Statham heist movie The Bank Job.
The viewing experience: Seeking Justice wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, but I expected it to be an unforgiveable, boring piece of garbage. I can’t say much of it was enjoyable, but because it was so dull, it actually gave me time—even while taking notes—to build a better version of it in my head. The chief problem with Seeking Justice is that the character played by Nicolas Cage—pretty much the reason we’re all here—is completely inessential and uninteresting to the larger story. There is literally no reason for him to exist. Let me explain.
Nicolas Cage and January Jones are a happy couple. They nuzzle. He buys her a necklace. He is an inner-city high-school teacher, she plays cello professionally. One night, as Cage plays chess with his friend Harold Perrineau—Walt’s dad from Lost, a.k.a. the wheelchair narrator from Oz—Jones is raped, but kinda offscreen, because this isn’t one of those kinds of movies. While in the hospital waiting room, Cage is approached by bald Guy Pearce, who says he knows who raped Cage’s wife, and he’ll have the guy killed immediately—if Cage agrees to a simple favor somewhere down the line, like maybe making a phone call or something else innocuous. Cage says no way, then has a flashback to five minutes beforehand when he saw his bruised wife, then says yes.
Without boring you with all the details, Pearce starts to ask Cage to do various things to pay back the debt, up to and including murdering a pedophile by pushing him off a bridge. Cage is a nice guy, so he has some problems with this, and eventually he’s being pursued by Pearce’s well-staffed, well-trained, deeply connected organization, which decides to kill him. And there’s the problem: Seeking Justice hinges on the idea that Pearce’s secret organization somehow needs ordinary schlubs like Cage to do its dirty work—and that for some reason, its masterminds believe those schlubs will do a better job than the organization’s own professional killers.
Take, for example, the setup they provide Cage when they want him to kill the supposed pedophile (who turns out to be an investigative journalist, who’s on to their sinister group): They disable a camera, then tell Cage exactly where to wait for the guy and push him off a bridge into traffic. Why not have one of the cops on the group’s payroll just go murder the guy? You are making things much too complicated for yourselves, sinister vigilante group! The overall premise, though, is actually pretty cool: If somebody made a good movie about a whole gang of Charles Bronsons from Death Wish, who were deeply resourceful but for some good reason also used victims’ families to do some of their dirty work, I would absolutely watch that on purpose. Maybe twice.
As it is, though, Seeking Justice doesn’t even try to explain why it needs Nicolas Cage. Instead, it tries to be clever—or tries to pad its running time—with a bunch of strange little overtures toward mystery. The amazing thing: These mysterious moments lead nowhere. It’s as if a character turned around and we heard “dun-dun-dun” scare music and then nothing was there. Here’s a catalog of a few of these moments, because when you know they lead nowhere, they actually become a little bit fun:
- Cage verbally agrees to have his wife’s rapist killed in exchange for favors to be named later. Pearce then tells him that if he accepts—keep in mind, he already accepted—he should go to the vending machines in the oncology department and buy two specific candy bars. This will apparently set something in motion. I thought as I watched it, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was no callback to this, and these candy bars served no purpose?” There wasn’t, and they didn’t.
- Later, Pearce calls Cage at a bar, where he’s playing pool with Jones. He tells him to go outside, then go to a mini-mart down the block. He instructs him to buy a pack of gum, then go out the back door. Cage does this, even asking how much the gum costs and where the back door is. The gum is never mentioned again, and Pearce is just hanging out behind the store in his car. Why not just say, “Come around behind the store”? On top of that, if Pearce is trying to be cagey, why does he just show up in the next scene and start talking to Cage?
- Pearce gives Cage a stamped envelope addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole.” He tells Cage to go to the zoo and mail it, but before he can, he receives a phone call telling him to open it. Why was it addressed and sealed in the first place? Mystery, that’s why.
- Later, Cage turns the tables in this dance of enigmatic stupidity. He instructs Pearce to go to the SuperDome, pick up a prepaid ticket, and go to his assigned seat. He’s very specific about this—he must go to his “assigned seat.” Once Pearce is seated, Cage calls him up and tells him to get back out of that seat and head downstairs. Then makes him go to the bathroom (“take a pee,” he instructs). Then tells him to go buy a hot dog. Then just walks up behind him, with no surprise. Huh? Are you just fucking with us, movie? Or are you so Tommy Wiseau-like that you know what’s supposed to happen in movies, but you don’t understand why they happen?
Cage, being a super-resourceful English teacher who’s now on the run from crooked cops and murderous baddies, decides he must try and solve this mystery. It takes him about five minutes to uncover all of the evidence about Pearce’s organization that he could want—the same evidence the group themselves apparently couldn’t find. And then, in a move typical of lazy movies like this one, the audience learns about the group—and Pearce’s character—via Cage watching a DVD.
There are a couple of rote car chases. Check out Cage’s awesome driving hands.
And then we’re set up for a typical action-movie finale. Big ups to the director and writer for kinda calling themselves out, though: When it’s time for the action to move to a more fight-friendly location, Pearce directs the key players to “the abandoned mall next door.” Next door!
Pearce gives the obligatory vigilante-gone-extra-crazy speech about how the city is perilously close to chaos, and only guys like him are keeping the scum off the streets. Then fighting happens and the good guys win. Walt’s dad from Lost goes from friend to enemy to friend again, and Dexter’s sister from Dexter isn’t in the movie anymore, because why was she even in the movie to begin with?
And then, because this movie desperately wants to be David Fincher’s The Game, or at the very least, the Shia LaBeouf vehicle Eagle Eye, a deeper conspiracy reveals itself in the movie’s final shot. All that’s missing is a graphic reading “THE END?” Oh, and also some character motivation, a decent plot, better action scenes, much more Cage craziness… It’s missing those things, too.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? In spite of all that, Seeking Justice wasn’t suicidally bad, just stilted and typical. Pearce and Cage can and should be in movies that at least try a bit harder than this one. Still, for the unintentional misdirections and a few decent Cage moments (at one point when playing pool, he yells, “Poo on you! I missed!”), Seeking Justice is kinda fun. Let’s say 15 minutes out of 105, which is about 14 percent.