(In theaters, September 2005) Being disappointed with Lord of War feels a lot like being ungrateful given how it’s already better than most of what you’ll see in theatres this year. This docu-drama about the life of an international weapon dealers is heavy in sardonic humour and originality. On the other hand, sometimes it slips and grinds to a halt as it clumsily goes for earnestness when cynicism works so much better. Nicolas Cage works wonders with a role that plays so well with his image, but the real star of the show is writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne). His script, based on real events, offers a unique and even daring look at the recent history of gun-running, with details as fascinating as any documentary. A number of crunchy scenes enliven the show, from a life-of-a-bullet opening credit sequence to the highly entertaining aftermath of an emergency plane landing. The movie suffers from trying a bit too hard to be moral in the last third (we already know that arms dealing is bad, m’kay?), but recovers just in time to conclude with a final three minutes of savage realism. Lord Of War is good, but the worst thing about it is that it’s just good enough to make one see how it could have been even better. It’s sort of a Goodfellas-lite, but it could have been a Goodfellas-full.
(On DVD, March 2005) It would be too easy to dismiss City Of Angels as romantic clap-trap about angels, impossible fairytale romance and cheap existential questions. It would be even easier to dismiss the film as a slow-moving morass of fabricated sentiment with an unclear mythology and a script that couldn’t be more obvious if it included subtitles about the screenwriter’s intentions. But to do so would be to ignore, unfairly, the delicious frisson of wonder at some of the film’s visuals: The “angels” watching over Los Angeles like so many dark crows. The idea that angels hang out at libraries (oh, c’mon; even stone-cold atheists would like this one to be true). The handful of scenes that make you go “hey… that’s nice.” Dennis Franz’s performance as a fallen angel who has learnt to appreciate life. Granted, in order to get to these things you have to suffer through love scenes between Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. (Ergh.) And possibly fast-forward through chunks of the film. And certainly try not to giggle at the splat-ending, or the contrived death scenes. But even cynics may find two or three things worth keeping about this film, and that’s almost two or three more than they would expect.
(In theaters, November 2004) Everyone loves a good secret, a good chase and a good mystery, so it’s no surprise if such a slick piece of escapist entertainment as National Treasure should tap into the same popular success as The Da Vinci Code. True, the Nicolas Cage / Jerry Bruckheimer combo has produced wonders in the past and this fourth collaboration is pure wall-to-wall fun. It had to happen sooner or later, mind you: a blockbuster tapping American history as a source of adventure and a thin pretext for chases and gunfights. That it works so well is less a testament to the appeal of early American history than to the professionalism of Jerry Bruckheimer’s formula. National Treasure moves at a fast clip, doesn’t waste time on needless material, uses arcane ideas at a prodigious rate (for a film) and disposes of them almost as quickly. Oh, many lines are lame, physics routinely ignored and the characters come straight out of central casting, but that simply reinforces the comfortable blockbuster feel of the whole thing. The only surprise is that the film wasn’t released in the summer. Hey, you can bitch and moan about this being a poor man’s Indiana Jones (and you’d be right), but National Treasure is such an oddball Hollywood creation that it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for an action picture that, at least, pays some lip service to the virtues of knowledge. (“I know something about history that you don’t know… Hold on one second, let me just take in this moment. This is cool. Is this how you feel all the time?”) Good enough for me, at least.
(In theaters, September 2003) Yet another con man film at a time where we’ve seen a number of them in recent months. But even though, yes, there is a con both on the characters and on the audience, the heart of the film is more of a character study, starring Nicolas Cage in another deeply neurotic performance. Matchstick Men is a story of how conning is affecting the protagonist, and how he’s able to come to a point where he’s able to kick the habit (sort of) and become a better person. Director Ridley Scott once again throws just about everything he’s got on the screen in the hope that some of it will stick and the result, as may be expected, is very uneven. Some of Cage’s antics are annoying, but as usual he’s never as good as when he’s foaming with rage. (Just wait until late in the film). It’s not a particularly deep film, but there’s a twist, a few good scenes, and high-grade production values that are seldom uninteresting. It’s not flashy, but it does the job. Some will have a problem with the happy ending (which reportedly wasn’t to be found in Eric Garcia’s original novel), but it fits with the overall thrust of the movie, which is the story of a man who happens to be a criminal and not the story of a criminal per se.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) There is something awe-inspiring in the grandiose panache with which this movie flaunts itself. Continuity mistakes, logical flaws and nonsensical developments are swatted aside like irrelevant trivialities, allowing director Michael Bay full power to show incredible images on-screen. The camera moves, sweeps, pans, captures perfect moments and doesn’t give a damn about the words or the continuity. The Rock is as close as anyone has ever come to the ultimate action movie. I still find parts of it silly beyond words—but soon after I’m silenced by the boffo action sequences and the slick polish of the whole production. I love the characters (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris are perfect), I love the direction, I love most of the one-liners and I love the explosions. Why should I complain about the rest? To see if you’re a real action-movie junkie, try watching only five minutes of the film. The first-generation DVD includes the film, and nothing else. But the movie is so good…
(In theaters, August 2000) There are no easy ways to describe this film. Hilarious in an oddball kind of way, this is a film that goes places you really wouldn’t expect and does so in style. Sharing an unexpected kinship with such unlikely counterparts as The Evil Dead, Raising Arizona defies expectations and produces an ultimately endearing result. Nicolas Cage is superb, the Coen Brothers’ direction is maniacal, the script is filled with great moments and the cinematography is occasionally breathtaking. Don’t miss this one.
(In theaters, August 2000) Not as bad as some critics may have thought initially; it’s first of all a car-lover’s film, and should prove to be a lot of fun for those people. Granted, the lack of car chases is puzzling in a film that’s designed around the concept of stealing cars, but the remainder of the film is interesting enough in a beer-can-entertainment type of fashion. Nicolas Cage is believable in a role close to his latest action-hero characters. Unfortunately, Giovanni Ribisi continues (after Boiler Room) to suck charisma out of all scenes in which he’s present. The soundtrack has its moment. There aren’t enough stunts. A typical Jerry Bruckheimer film, with all the good and bad that this entails.
(In theaters, March 1999) I couldn’t make it to the end of this film for uncontrollable reasons (no, I’m not that squeamish: I had a severe headache even before the movie started and my physical condition went downhill after that…), but I did like what I saw. Nicolas Cage is always decent, and the script efficiently goes through the motion. I did miss most of the extended third act, (I left shortly after Cage used a screwdriver on a Machine) so reports of a drawn-out conclusion might or might not be true.
(In theaters, August 1998) This film starts off with an impressive seemingly-uncut, very complex 12-minute scene. Nicolas Cage also starts off grand, but loses a lot of energy as the movie advances. Not coincidentally, the movie also settles down after a while, causing considerable disappointment. A whodunit becomes procedural thriller, then degenerates in late-night movie fare. Beautifully shot by Brian de Palma, but finally quite average. The most-charitably-described-as- deus-ex-machina ending is adequate in the theatre, but doesn’t survive the trip back home. A shame, considering the talent involved.
(In theaters, June 1997) The best action movies always have an extra layer of… depth to them. Die Hard, Aliens, Terminator 2, even The Rock all had a strong cast of character to give meaning to the action so the bullets weren’t flying around for nothing. Face/Off succeeds so well in this regard that it would have been interesting even without the superior actions sequences that pepper the script. The story begins where most other action movies end: Bad Psycho Terrorist (Nicolas Cage) is arrested by Good Straight Policeman (John Travolta) But soon, cop has terrorist’s face and vice-versa and we’re set for a fascinating exploration of the mind/body duality (and a few explosions on the side.) Both leads are just great, as is director Woo. Despite many impossibilities, the script works very well and even offers a few moments of genuine emotion. Even better, the female characters are strong, and not limited to the helpless hostage role. Face/Off holds together better than most of the recent action movies in memory: satisfying, solid entertainment.
(Second viewing, On VHS, May 2000) This holds up well three years later, mostly because director John Woo knew where to build on a better-than-average action script to produce a film closer to his own themes. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta bring considerable credence to a tale that might otherwise have seemed utterly preposterous. The directing is clean, stylish and exciting and the action set-pieces don’t disappoint. Definitely worth a second viewing.