'Dying of the Light': Film Review
Nicolas Cage plays a CIA veteran whose mind is decaying
Amid the public-relations hubbub over Dying of the Light, which was reportedly removed from writer/director Paul Schrader's control after he refused to make requested changes, producers attempted to placate the auteur's supporters by claiming that the version now being released and the cut he delivered to them "are 80 percent the same."
Anyone who believes a 20% difference isn't worth getting worked up over should probably not be trusted with the production of a movie. And those who've followed the careers of Schrader and his star here, Nicolas Cage, will find it easy to imagine the more psychologically probing, expressionistic film they intended to make. Still, if it's true that everything here is material the director and his chosen crew shot, one suspects that Light was slightly dim even before it was vandalized — a film about various kinds of loyalty, blind and otherwise, whose B-movie spycraft action wasn't quite meshing with its intellectual preoccupations. After what is likely to be a brief theatrical run, producers may well conclude that rushing a Director's Cut to home video is their smartest commercial move; there, history can be the judge.
Cage plays a CIA veteran who, decades after his career in the field ended (he was tortured and nearly killed by a Bin Laden-like character named Muhammad Banir), is a desk jockey whose main role at the Agency is to give an annual pep talk to new recruits. As we see this speech in an early scene, Cage's delivery ("you heard the call — the call of du-teeee") recalls the inappropriate outbursts of the coming-unglued businessman he played a quarter-century ago in Vampire's Kiss. Cage's Evan Lake is a true believer in the righteousness of an institution beleaguered by scandal and mismanagement, but his passion here is also colored by a malady of the brain: His coworkers don't yet know that he suffers frontotemporal dementia, which is causing unexplained mood swings and disorientation and will likely kill him before long.
Lake's erratic behavior gets him fired just as evidence arrives that Banir (Alexander Karim), long thought to be dead, might actually be alive and holed up in Kenya. The CIA isn't interested in pursuing this lead, but Lake can't let it go. With his former coworker Milton Schultz (an appropriately earnest Anton Yelchin) and a foreign operative he once loved (Irene Jacob), he sets out on an unsupported mission to find Banir and make him pay for his crimes.
In this cut (reportedly not the work of credited editor Tim Silano), the ensuing action is considerably more sluggish than its plot would suggest. Even as his brainpower is fading, with small and large "slips" making him unable to recall a word or find his way home, Lane manages to pass himself off as the doctor responsible for Banir's care and arrange a meeting in the man's home. But attempts to put viewers inside the character's head (including flashbacks to his abuse at Banir's hands) eventually have the effect of turning the film spacey just as it should be gripping — especially in the climactic meeting of the two men, who each have reasons to reassess the beliefs that made them hurt others and themselves during their youths. The scene might have been a piercing look at idealists forced into self-questioning; here, it's a muddle. Worse than that, it's a natural endpoint that proves instead to be the setup for violence that doesn't fit the film — an action sequence that feels like a filmmaker's backup plan, shot just in case a more thoughtful ending didn't play well in test screenings. The wholly conventional resolution even offers Cage a tough-guy quip that belongs in a Bruce Willis flick. The moneymen may have distorted it beyond recognition, but something was probably wrong with Dying of the Light long before they started meddling.
Production companies: Over Under Media, TinRes Entertainment
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irene Jacob, Adetomiwa Edun, Aymen Hamdouchi, Robert G. Slade, Claudius Peters
Director-Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Producers: Scott Clayton, Gary A. Hirsch, Todd Williams
Executive producers: Barry Brooker, Christian Mercuri, Steve Schwartz, Stan Wertlieb, Nicolas Winding Refn
Director of photography: Gabriel Kosuth
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Costume designer: Oana Paunescu
Editor: Tim Silano
Music: Frederik Wiedmann
Casting director: Carolyn McLeon
Rated R, 93 minutes