REVIEW: I’ve long been fascinated by the series of B-action yarns churned out with regularity by Grindstone Entertainment and Lionsgate Premiere - usually produced by Randal Emmett and/or George Furla – and often featuring top-tier actors in smallish parts. Bruce Willis and John Cusack are almost repertory players for them at this point, and while Willis sits this one out, Nicolas Cage picks up the slack. Usually, these movies are disposable, but there’s one director working for them that is kind of interesting, Steven C. Miller.
I’ve followed Miller’s career since his early genre outings, THE AGGRESSION SCALE and UNDER THE BED, and I’ve always found him to be a talented director. His first Grindstone/Lionsgate actioner, EXTRACTION, was hampered by a horrible third act and a listless Bruce Willis performance, but it had a few decent action beats, and his follow-up, MAURAUDERS got reasonably good reviews (I’ve yet to catch it myself). I was especially intrigued after watching the trailer for ARSENAL, his latest actioner, because in it, Cage seemed to be doing a variation on his infamous turn in the 1993 cult-classic, DEADFALL.
I half-hoped ARSENAL would be the same kind of deranged fun as DEADFALL was, but outside of an inspired, unhinged performance by Cage, this southern crime melodrama takes itself too seriously. Given Cage’s wild performance, which features him hiding under a wig, faux-mustache and fake nose and inhaling copious amounts of cocaine, you’d assume the rest of the film would aim for the same heightened reality. Too bad then that everyone takes it so seriously, with lead Adrian Grenier playing too conventional a hero, while the plot twists are easy to anticipate.
Here, Grenier plays a construction boss, whose brother (Schaech) is a former drug-dealer is trying to go straight. An ill-advised coke deal sees him cross paths with Cage, who suggests they try to extort his upstanding brother of several hundred thousand dollars, and so begins the melodrama. Grenier could probably have a decent career in these modest action outings (similar to how former “Saved by the Bell” star Mark-Paul Gosselaar is reinventing himself), but he’s too earnest for what should be a pulpy thriller. Schaech fares better, and had he been the lead rather than Grenier it might have worked.
Meanwhile, John Cusack pops up for a few scenes as a semi-crooked cop who’s pals with the brothers. Adding a black do-rag to his usual DTV black-cap/black-jacket ensemble, Cusack looks like Steven Seagal here, and while he’s clearly phoning it in, he’s interesting to watch at least. It’s a real shame him and Cage don’t share any scenes together in what could have been a mini CON AIR reunion (I actually quite liked their DTV entry THE FROZEN GROUND).
Cage’s whacked-out performance is what makes ARSENAL worth checking out, with him having a blast throughout. He doesn’t phone it in at all, and Cage is always fun to watch when he’s in gonzo mode. There’s one especially good scene that reunites him with his DEADFALL director (and cousin) Christopher Coppola, that alone is almost worth the price of a VOD rental. If Cage is hampered, surprisingly, it’s by Miller, who opts to shoot all of the violence in extreme slow-motion, a stylish flair that enhances the lunacy at first, but starts to feel indulgent as it’s used over-and-over.
In the end, ARSENAL is only occasionally the wacky thriller the trailer suggested it might be, but too much of it is formulaic and dull. Still, you have to hand it to Miller and Cage for trying something a little different, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Miller, sooner rather than later, turns one of these programmers into a legit gem.