There's a tug-of-war at the heart of Roger Donaldson’s thriller, and it’s not just vengeance vs. acceptance.
On one side is Nic Cage, a fine actor but one whose mainstream choices suggest he once made a deal with the devil and it’s now payback. On the other is Guy Pearce, a modest presence in some of cinema’s sharpest crossovers. It’s indie smarts vs. the Hollywood steamroller – you can probably guess the outcome.
Cage plays an earnest literature teacher in New Orleans, whose wife (January Jones) is raped by a passerby. In the hospital waiting room, sombre stranger Pearce offers him a choice – justice (well, revenge) for a future favour.
It’s a classic Faustian pact, and the grief-stricken Cage agrees, but what horrors has he really consented to? There’s a good what would you do if…? movie in here somewhere, but Justice isn’t quite it.
Donaldson’s direction is slick and the cast (particularly Pearce) are on point (though Jones has little to do), but there are script howlers throughout and the action comes too thick and fast. It’s all compression, no compassion and though we get a sense of a city gone to hell, we have no feelings for the people forced to endure it.
Two scenes illustrate the gap between the film that could have been and the one that remains. In the first, Cage escapes Pearce’s men under a grubby concrete underpass – a chase that’s convincing, downbeat and harrowing all at once.
In the other, Cage signals his allegiance to the dark side by purchasing chocolate bars from a vending machine. Now, it may be that the filmmakers take their theme seriously, but dramatising the central dilemma with confectionary doesn’t suggest that’s the case.
Cheesy Hollywood chase movies are one thing; timely indie thrillers another – but flitting between the two while candycoating difficult truths can only mean one thing: everyone loses.
Promising much more than it delivers, this potentially interesting issue movie jettisons moral complexity for multiplex-friendly fight-or-flight theatrics. The result is another fudged The Fugitive.