Legally speaking, “Cage” isn’t Nicolas Cage’s real last name — it’s Coppola. As in Francis Ford (his uncle) and Sofia (cousin). Or more germane to 1993’s Deadfall, Christopher Coppola, who’s Cage’s older brother. And you’d do anything for your brother, right?
After misplacing his blanks for real bullets, con man Joe Donan (Michael Biehn) accidentally kills his father (James Coburn) when a heist goes wrong. In his grief, Joe hops on a bus and attempts to con his old uncle Lou (also Coburn), fulfilling his father’s dying wish. While under his employ, Joe meets Lou’s wildcard of a righthand man, Eddie (Cage) and begins a romance with Eddie’s girlfriend, Diane (Sarah Trigger), as he becomes increasingly entangled in a web of deceit, contrivance, and disappointing hair pieces.
If only for the fact that its opening drug deal is hidden in shadows, Deadfall begins on an intriguing if slightly clunky note. The moody music and Biehn’s wooden voiceover make for an instant tip of Coppola’s hand and the noir homages he’s aiming for. But when Joe and his fellow con men spring their trick, the dutch angles and violent camera pushes obliterate any of that admirable will with supreme camp.
Isolate scenes in Deadfall and it’s tough to tell what it wants to be. Sure, the patricide is dark, but when Cage’s Eddie arrives with his toupee and bad card tricks, dramatic tension gets bulldozed over by a ridiculous performance. Not to mention Biehn treats an obvious characterization with ‘gee willickers’ candor and flat deliveries, instilling anything but confidence in our leading con man. It makes Joe seem too out of place and in over his head inside a world that’s far too loud or bizarre to ever really work. Sarah Trigger is a femme fatale only as much as a circle, two dots and a mouth is a self-portrait. This is by-the-numbers noir wielded with all or nothing moodiness; scenes of nighttime plotting feel like Coppola ordered his gaffers to dim the lights, checking off an itemized list of tropes from the director’s chair and calling it a day. And that’s only when he manages to pin down a coherent tone.
It’s difficult to take Deadfall on face value and trust that it was the intended final product all along. It wants to have its cake and eat it along with a New York strip on the side, and it’s never clear if we’re meant to laugh with or at it. Jim Fox’s disengaging bounce of score does no favors. Some of Biehn’s early detective work plays a scene in a cafe like a Judd Apatow punchline, but a later Cinemax-esque love scene with Trigger is smothered in distracting synth tones. If only by virtue of contrast, the film feels stronger when it goes completely batshit, rather than trying and failing to straddle the line. Take Angus Schrimm’s Dr. Lyme, a diamond connoisseur with a thing for stuffed lion heads, ambiguously ethnic masseuses, and Dr. Evil’s wardrobe collection. And that’s not even counting his metal claw hand. None of it makes sense, but at least it’s more entertaining than another interminable bit of Biehn’s narration.
It’s a shame Eddie goes away at halftime, since Deadfall’s watchability benefits tremendously from his permanent grimace and cheap, gas station sunglasses; given his ability to detonate lines wholesale, Cage takes Eddie from “loose cannon” to “oversized RPG.” He splatters on the ticks and epileptic twitches, as if Jackson Pollack were his acting muse, and from his compound accent — West Coast, European, and Cuban — Tom Hardy’s Bane owes a thing or two to the man. Both Gotham’s Reckoning and Eddie are equally quotable, albeit for different reasons. After hearing of Biehn’s double cross, Cage tears through an S&M strip club with a prolonged “FUUUUUUUCK” and garnishes a karate-chop with “hi-fuckin-ya!” It’s like a hilarious blimp crash, and the flames truly crest when Eddie comes home to Diane in a paranoid, bloody stupor.
The counterproductive dubbing, the bipolar pitches in his voice; even the temper tantrum on the bed makes one wonders if Cage agreed to star in his brother’s movie on the sole condition that he play the role however the hell he wanted.
In Deadfall’s climax, Biehn confronts his apparently still living father at gunpoint, and all while spinning on a carousel. Whether Coppola intended the painted wooden horses and bright lights to clash with noir’s requisite gloom, whether they’re meant as hilariously parodic or whether it’s simply another sign of directorial incompetence, it doesn’t really matter. The final revelation is that the carousel’s punchy circus music could very well have played in any other scene.
* * * * *
Want more Cage? You got it.