By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nicolas Cage has been so prolific and so undiscriminating in his choice of projects in recent years (after an impressive early career highlighted by his best actor Oscar for 1995′s Leaving Las Vegas) that we approach each new Cage opening with expectations pretty much stuck at low tide.
So it’s both surprising and gratifying to report that his latest starring vehicle is not only bearable but respectable and watchable.
(2½ stars out of 4)
As a variation on the Death Wish formula, Seeking Justice seeks to get under your skin and it does so, efficiently and effectively.
Originally titled The Hungry Rabbit Jumps (for reasons that become clear as the narrative unfolds), it’s a plot-driven urban crime thriller about Will Gerard, a post-Katrina New Orleans high school English teacher played by Cage, whose wife Laura, a concert cellist played by January Jones, is brutally assaulted and raped.
While waiting at the hospital for news of her condition, he’s approached by Simon, played by Guy Pearce, who tells Will that he’ll get minimal if any help from the Big Easy’s police force or legal system, and claims to know who the assailant was and to represent an underground vigilante organization, a justice-seeking citizens group that “deals with people” and that offers violent retribution.
Simon offers Will a deal: he’ll arrange to have a complete stranger exact revenge on Laura’s rapist. In exchange, Will will be called on to do a return favor at some point in the future.
Initially reluctant, distraught Will gives in to his feelings of rage and agrees, but does not tell his wife.
Sure enough, as life gets back to normal, Laura’s attacker ends up meeting with an unfortunate “accident” and dies, allowing Will to relax with the knowledge that justice has been served.
And, sure enough, Will is eventually called upon to murder a suspected criminal as payback — and is not free to refuse the assignment, as a conspiracy slowly unfolds.
Collaborating with producer Tobey Maguire, New Zealander Roger Donaldson — veteran director of The Bank Job, The Recruit, Thirteen Days, and The World’s Fastest Indian — works from Robert Tannen’s intriguing if ultimately undeveloped script about vigilante justice which somewhat hypocritically disapproves of vigilantism while exploiting its excesses, and is only superficially interested in the moral quandary that stays buried under the narrative.
But a decent amount of suspense is generated, at least until the late going, when the film devolves into a generic chase flick and what has heretofore been a fairly convincing series of events suddenly steps over the preposterousness line.
A shame, that, because the thought-provoking premise deserves a more thoughtful third act and resolution.
As for Cage, who in recent years has turned himself into Mr. Quantity-instead-of-Quality but continues to seek justice from onlookers, he actually and uncharacteristically dials down the intensity level (that is, the signature shouting and manic energy) and does what for him is probably best described as “underplaying.”
So we’ll seek just 2½ stars out of 4 for an absorbing revenge thriller that has something a little different up its sleeve. This time, Cage is on the cagy side. Ditto for Seeking Justice.
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