Where’s the line between desperation and dedication? It’s a question director Roger Donaldson (of The World’s Fastest Indian and Dante’s Peak fame) tries and fails to answer in the Anchor Bay release, Seeking Justice. That line between desperation and dedication however is also fast becoming the theme of Cage’s late career filmography. Like the similarly Creole-flavored Stolen, Seeking Justice takes place in New Orleans — “Who Dat Nation,” as high school English teacher Will Gerard (Cage) reminds us in awkward white man fashion. Yet apart from a tacked-on bit about city corruption, Seeking Justice has virtually nothing to say about Louisiana, the state which also happens to be the adopted home of its star actor. Cage’s intentions are hopefully noble here — bringing a studio production to a still struggling city’s economy, like Stolen and in Shreveport for Drive Angry — but at what point do we start to suspect Cage is just sick of his morning commutes?
For the very little it’s worth, Seeking Justice entertains an “Adjustment Bureau” style premise: what if a secret vigilante organization had infiltrated all levels of a city’s justice system? What if one high school teacher got involved with this organization to exact revenge on his wife’s rapist? What if this organization was blinded by its own ambitions and principles? At times, Seeking Justice plays like a lesser Twilight Zone episode: a man goes outside the law to avenge the horrific assault of his wife and gets more than he bargained for. It’s a dull, inconsistent mess of corruption and moralizing, a “Be careful what you wish for” fable shoved inside the plot structure of Batman Begins. Remove Nolan’s storytelling finesse, add some January Jones and a hammy Guy Pearce performance and dinner is served.
You are going to want red beans and rice with that, though because Seeking Justice is blander than this cheap metaphor. As Cage’s concert cellist wife, Jones proves incapable of moving beyond her ice queen screen persona (one which X-Men: First Class smartly played up). On Mad Men, Jones has longevity because Jon Hamm’s philandering affords her the opportunity to make pouty faces and grump about — in some seasons, understandably so. Here, Donaldson trusts Jones to be his delicate flower, and while the manner in which he shoots her brutal assault automatically earns sympathy, rape is less a character trait so much as it is a simply despicable act, and it’s not enough for us to give two craps about her beyond that. There’s no warmth behind a pretty face, and it’s a flat performance.
Pearce, however, swings Ye Ole Acting Pendulum in the polar opposite direction of Jones as “Simon,” the vaguely sinister head of this vigilante organization. Simon as a character is as bland as his organization, which doesn’t even bother to self-identify beyond a puzzling, annoying catchphrase: “The hungry rabbit jumps.” Like Jones, Cage, or anyone else in Seeking Justice, Robert Tannen’s script awards Pearce a bare bones role, but he imbues lines with a “You’ll be sorry” quality that feel right at home in a B-movie. As for why Pearce is in this, Seeking Justice also indirectly suggests the actor is a better looking Nicolas Cage parallel. Breaking through in promising projects — whether L.A. Confidential or Raising Arizona — Pearce and Cage have both found themselves taking on hammier roles, performances and characters that demand a modicum of the control required of them in Memento or Adaptation. Even in higher-tier fare like Lawless, it seems Pearce can’t escape the same scene-chewing bargain bin roles.
Donaldson bungles Seeking Justice’s turning point to such a severe degree it’s fantastic, because if you didn’t think Cage’s investigation of Pearce’s vigilante organization would lead to a monster truck rally in the Superdome, you haven’t been paying attention. As an example, there’s an exchange of information via recorded flip phone video… from an SUV DVD player… in 2011. Cage’s Will Gerard is meant to be a fish-out-of-water here, a teacher-turned-hometown avenger, and much of his sleuthing involves improvisation against random screenwriting curve balls. A series of unqualified, undeveloped plot twists early on seem arbitrary; when Seeking Justice makes no attempt to pay them off, they seem more like double middle fingers.
That Cage’s recent career choices have been more fascinating than the actor himself is a point I grow tired of making, but Seeking Justice is truly no different. At one point in his investigation, Cage himself at the funeral of a dead journalist, where a friend jokes about the recently deceased’s secret identity as an alien. If only that were the truth.
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