Review: The Runner
PLOT: An idealistic politician (Nicolas Cage) trying desperately to secure aid for his state following the 2010 BP oil finds his career in tatters after his philandering goes public.
REVIEW: THE RUNNER is a mild step in the right direction for Nicolas Cage. While his filmography has been littered with low-rent DTV potboilers as of late (barring the occasional gem like JOE or intriguing misfire like THE DYING OF THE LIGHT) Cage, with roles in Oliver Stone's SNOWDON and Larry Charles' ARMY OF ONE, seems to be consciously trying to choose better vehicles. While he's still got lots of paycheck parts on the way, Cage at least seems to be making an effort and THE RUNNER is a good example of him trying to go back to his roots by starring in a serious-minded character piece with a message.
While writer-director Austin Stark's THE RUNNER is too modest a film to garner much attention, Cage does have one of his better recent roles as a self-destructive but honest politico trying to do right against the BP oil spill backdrop. With an eighty-five minute running time and an unmistakably low-budget feel, its clear THE RUNNER was never intended to be an A-list return-to-form for Cage, but it does allow him to deliver one of his most restrained performances in years.
Playing a self-destructive alcoholic is nothing new to Cage as he won an Oscar for playing that very same character type in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. While there are some minor similarities to that part, particularly in the film's mid-section where his formerly sober character goes off on a series of benders, the performance is reigned in to a large degree. His character, while a philanderer and womanizer, is portrayed as functional enough that he's able to convince people that he's a viable politician. Cage – for once – doesn't go-off on any wild-eyed tangents. There's no “Cage-rage” here, and for the first time since JOE is feels like he's playing a real, three-dimensional guy – warts and all.
While Cage's performance is very good, it can't be denied that THE RUNNER is still a pretty mild film that tells a well-worn tale. At its best this is like a so-so episode of House of Cards, and that's not helped by the super-brief running time, which makes it feel like big chunks of the film were left on the cutting room floor. Indeed, Cage's character's fall-from-grace and eventual comeback happens incredibly fast, and a romantic subplot with Sarah Paulson as his former publicist seems to come out of nowhere. Great actors like Wendell Pierce show up for a few scenes, and then disappear, while Connie Nielsen as Cage's wife (playing a similar role to what she played on the brilliant-but-cancelled Boss) is given very little to do but scowl. Their relationship should have been a lot more interesting than it is, and making her such a shrewish (but picture-perfect) figure feels like too transparent a bid to keep Cage sympathetic. He's a good enough actor that he could have managed this on his own.
However, other than Cage's performance there are some solid moments that make THE RUNNER worth a watch. For one, the context given to the spill – including the plight of the Gulf Coast fishermen - is laudable and well-conveyed. Peter Fonda also has a brief but tasty part as Cage's disgraced politician father.
In the end, THE RUNNER will probably go the way of most Nicolas Cage DTV yarns. It'll take a more high-profile film to earn Cage back the trust of his fans – many of whom are going to ignore this thinking it's no better than something like RAGE or the execrable LEFT BEHIND. It's too bad as THE RUNNER is relatively solid and proof that Cage is still capable of solid work if the material warrants it. While this probably isn't worth going out of your way to track down, if you stumble upon it on Netflix its actually a decent little drama – although still very minor compared to the caliber of movies Cage used to churn out in his heyday.