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“These days,” complains a Russian mafia boss in Rage after hearing that some of his men have been gunned down, “they shoot first and talk later. How am I supposed to know what they want?” Though he’s talking about the impulsive hero, played by an energetic Nicolas Cage, he could be talking about Rage itself. Hidden within this, the first English language feature from Spanish director Paco Cabezas, there are some good ideas struggling to be heard, but they’re drowned out by the contrivances, the gunfire and the screaming.
Cabezas’ last, Neon Flesh, was an enjoyably over the top actioner whose knowing sense of hyperreal excess made it often darkly hilarious. This time, the excess remains but most of the hilarity has gone, with writers Jim Agnew and Sean Keller struggling to have it both ways — on the one hand a shoot ‘em up homage to overkill, on the other a study of failed redemption — in a film which looks like very much like the hyperactive younger sibling of the Liam Neeson starrer Taken, albeit with an added twist or two.
Paul Maguire (Cage) is a successful property developer who has built his fortune on a criminal episode in his past which will return to haunt him. The early scenes establish the besuited Paul’s good guy credentials as he publicly promises to give the profits from an urban planning project to charity and fusses obsessively over his daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples), who he’s raising along with his second wife, the much younger Vanessa (Rachel Nichols), presumably attracted to Paul more for his wealth than for his spectacular haircut.
The suspicion that there might just be something a little too clingy and desperate in Maguire’s attitude to his daughter is confirmed when, following a night spent at home with a couple of friends, Caitlin disappears, apparently kidnapped. Having been told the bad news by good-hearted, soft-talking stereotype/detective St. John (Danny Glover), Paul abandons his suit, dons his leather jacket for the remainder, and promises Vanessa he’ll do whatever it takes to get Caitlin back.
What is takes is lots and lots — and lots — of violence, as Paul rounds up his old partners in crime (with whom, implausibly, he’s still good buddies) Kane (Max Ryan) and Doherty (Michael McGrady). Soon St. John, who for reasons unknown behaves throughout more like Paul’s counselor than a cop, tells Paul that Caitlin’s body has been found: a raindrop falls off a leaf in slow-mo close-up, which someone must have thought was poetic. At the funeral, both Paul and the audience are forced to listen patiently while his wheelchair-bound former boss O’Connell (played by Peter Stormare (the issue of why this Irishman has a heavy Swedish accent is not addressed) tells him to stay clean before practically vanishing from the story.
But Paul walks away from O’Connell’s advice. When it’s discovered that the murder weapon was Russian (the film’s original title, to be maintained for some territories, was Tokarev), Paul leaps to the conclusion that he is being revenged, for some reason fifteen years later, for a crime he, Kane and Doherty committed in their younger years — a crime on which his present wealth is founded.
Beneath Rage’s hyperactive, bloody surface, there are some interesting issues being examined. For example, the fact that Caitlin is more than just a daughter to Paul — she’s a symbol of his reformed life, and when that symbol goes, the new life must come tumbling down with it. The inescapable past is in there too, and the interesting notion that while Paul has matured as a man, he has not matured as a criminal, hence his immediate deployment of brutality before talk. “The die is cast” is the name of a story Caitlin has written, suggesting that at some level the scriptwriters are trying to tackle the big themes of fate and redemption that are behind much hard boiled film and fiction and Shakespeare, too.
But all of this only occurs to the viewer after a little thought. As a viewing experience, the film is mostly fast but depthless, its slower moments merely transitional as it proceeds to the next vivid, blood-hued set piece.
Maguire’s flaw is that he reacts to grief with the rage of the title. Since Cage is legendary anyway for his ability to switch his performing volume between zero and ten and ignore everything in between (his recent low-key performance in Joe provided a welcome respite), he feels just right for a character who, right from the outset, is more Hyde than Jekyll. Though the aud will never feel much sympathy for him, despite a little speech about the death of his first wife from cancer, there is cartoonish fun in watching Maguire, fifteen years out of the game, suddenly getting back into it and finding himself the mental and physical match of much younger criminals as he slides his trusty knife in and out of their bodies. Cage-watchers, and there are many out there, will find a couple of scenes that slot nicely into their Nick’s Wildest Moments YouTube compilations.
Though always watchable, Rage is rarely believable. Why indeed does Stormare talk like that? Who’s looking after the shop while Maguire is busy shooting up the city? Why is St John so protective towards the psychopath that Maguire has become, and why are the forensics so incompetent? Even the effective final twist depends on a memory failure by Paul that’s only just about plausible.
The characters are stereotypes, and as with Neon Flesh, it’s as though the actors have been told to play them with a knowing wink, which they do with relish. Pasha D. Lychnikoff as smiling Russian mafioso Chernov seems to be particularly enjoying himself in this regard, and like the others he’s fun to watch — but because he’s not credible, neither does he transmit real danger. (You’re Chernov,” Kane amusingly tells him. “You’re the bad guy.”) A lot of audience pain would be saved if there was an embargo on scriptwriters writing about aging black cops, Irish gangsters and Russian mafia hoods unless they’ve actually met one themselves.
Visually, too, Rage is a potpourri of cliches: Cabezas positively embraces slow motion and D.P. Andrzej Sekula always seeks out the unusual angle across a range of deja-vu locations which include an underground car park and a warehouse. One early shot from street level, of a skirted Caitlin crossing the street, is likely to raise feminist eyebrows within the first couple of minutes in a movie which, despite its awkward attempts at raindrop tenderness, is really all about testosterone — right down to Laurent Eyquem’s overused chunky, rock-based score.
Production companies: Hannibal Classics, Patriot Pictures, Image Entertainment
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rachel Nichols, Peter Stormare, Aubrey Peeples, Danny Glover, Max Ryan, Jack Falahee, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Michael McGrady
Director: Paco Cabezas
Screenwriters: Jim Agnew, Sean Keller
Producers:Michael Mendelsohn, Richard Rionda Del Castro
Executive producers: Jim Agnew, Hayley Magouirk, Martin J. Barab, Cam Cannon, Patricia Eberle, Frederico Lapenda, Sean Keller, Luis de Val
Director of photography: Andrzej Sekula
Production designer: Vincent DeFelice
Costume designer: Critter Pierce
Editor: Robert A. Ferretti
No rating, 98 minutes
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