“I hope this movie isn’t totally awful,” I told my wife before starting the new Nicolas Cage/Guy Pearce thrilla Seeking Justice.
“Or, alternately, I hope that it’s totally awful.” As a die-hard fan of Cage, I know there’s not a lot of in-between for the actor. He has been sleepwalking through a lot of roles as of late, but I know that he’s at his best not when he’s got a staid, dramatic role, but instead when he’s able to infuse his character with some odd quirk (see his eye-twitch in Matchstick Men, for instance), or – failing that – when he’s able to let his manic energy ramp up to 11. Needless to say, I’m usually hoping for the latter. Unfortunately, 2011’s Seeking Justice doesn’t find Cage going off-the-rails as often as it really should have, but it makes up for it by nearing “so bad it’s good” levels of incompetence. This makes it one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen from the actor in some time, despite the fact that it’s not going to make any new Cage converts.
It’s a supremely silly movie that gets its kicks by making the viewer feel uneasy. Cage plays Will Gerard, a nerdy English teacher at an inner-city high school in New Orleans. His wife, played by January Jones (making Zooey Deschanel’s turn in The Happening seem skillful by comparison), is assaulted and raped while returning from her job as a concert violinist. In his grief, Gerard is easily plied by a shady fellow hawking easy justice. The terminally suave Simon (Pearce) tells Gerard that he is part of a group of “concerned citizens” who are trying to take the city back from the criminals and nogoodniks who are infecting New Orleans like a plague. This group would be willing to, how you say, deal with his wife’s attacker for the small price of doing a favor for them later. Sounds too good to be true, right? Gerard agrees to this deal and it’s not long before he’s able to tell his wife, “The police found the rapist!” Seems like you’d want to use more tact in identifying him (e.g. “your attacker”, “the guy”, “that sunuvabitch”), but to each his own.
Actually, let me back up a bit. One thing that the film does to make its viewers uneasy is to constantly maintain an air of tension, and when I use the word constantly I mean it literally. There is not a single moment in the film where characters simple ride a bus or have a conversation without the accompanying musical score, plus Gerard’s paranoid glances all around him, reminding us that danger lurks everywhere! In order to acknowledge that he’s agreed to Simon’s terms, Gerard is instructed to go to the hospital candy machine and purchase two “Forever” brand chocolate bars simultaneously (metaphor much?). The ensuing scene is laughable for how seriously the film takes such a banal exercise. Cage cautiously approaches the vending machine, the music rising and the actor nervously looking around at everyone else in the room. He slowly puts a dollar into the slot, the camera closing in on his hand as he punches those fateful numbers – watching the candy bar fall like his moral sense. It’s supposed to be an important event, but it only comes across as utterly ridiculous.
And “utterly ridiculous” is the path that the film stays on from there. Gerard is introduced to a conspiracy wherein seemingly every man in New Orleans will comply with any order – up to and including murder – as a response to the secret password: “The hungry rabbit jumps.” As an aside, The Hungry Rabbit Jumps was the original title for this film and I sincerely wish it had not been changed. In any case, as you might expect, Gerard is asked to perform a simple homicide but chickens out at the last moment. No matter; the death goes through as planned and Gerard is framed for the crime – setting off the more action-oriented portion of the film, which has Cage running from both the seedy “concerned citizens” group as well as the NOPD. In case it’s not clear already, let me draw your attention to what’s going on here: Will Gerard’s wife was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted, but it’s all just set-up to show that her husband is the real victim. Incredible.
Guy Pearce brings the most to the film, playing his creepy, leering character perfectly (though, again, the ominous score helps a lot). The scenes that Pearce and Cage share are the best-acted, but hardly the most entertaining. The shot that I remember most vividly now is one where Gerard finds that someone unexpected is part of the “concerned citizens” gang that is out to get him – he cups his hand over his eyes and shakes his head slightly. It’s a hilariously understated response to what should otherwise be a startling revelation. Another great moment comes when Gerard first leaves to meet Simon, a meeting which will lay out the tasks he’s expected to accomplish to return the, ahem, favor that was done for him. He stops in the kitchen on the way out, calling his wife’s name. When she turns to him, his response is a bit of shuffling, followed by, “Uh… I love you.” It’s such a bizarre way of approaching the scene, I can’t tell whether the actors were a) instructed to play it that way, b) just really bad at their jobs, or c) intentionally being uncomfortably awkward.
Finally, there’s the matter of the “twist” ending, which is the laziest and least interesting way for the film to conclude. It all adds up to another failure for the Cage-haters to decry, which is a shame because if you can learn to love the under-acting, the incomprehensible zoom-ins (attempting to, but not quite matching the insanity of John Singleton’s Abduction) and infinite menace, Seeking Justice is one of the most enjoyable films that Cage has been involved with in some time. He’s great when he’s great, he’s amazing when he’s awful. It’s in films that excise all excess that Cage’s performance gets castrated.
In this movie, my favorite movie star is terrible… and I love him more for it.