Mandy and all the images you see in this review are owned by RLJE Films
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
I had no idea this movie existed until about four days ago and I knew precisely two things about it; Nic Cage and chainsaws. I don’t know about you, but you can usually get me to see a movie if you have one of those things, let alone both! Nicolas Cage has had a REALLY rough go of it lately with mostly direct to video fare that even die-hard fans like myself find tedious, and while this isn’t really a BLOCKBUSTER or even a STUDIO film, the fact that he’s in theaters again and is in a movie that’s getting a lot of positive buzz makes more oh so very happy even if he’s STILL probably not gonna get that Superman role now that () is most likely stepping down. The movie itself though, well I still have to SEE it before I can proclaim it to be as good as everyone says it is even if I want it to be the first step to the greatest coming story in Hollywood history! Or at the very least the first step towards getting a Face/Off 2.
Back in the early eighties, a guy named Red (Nicolas Cage and a lady named Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are living in a pretty nice house out in the woods, surviving off of odd jobs as a lumberjack for him and as a convenience store cashier for her, and generally enjoying the isolation from the rest of the world. Both are into old school rock and roll (though I guess back then it wouldn’t have been THAT old) and so are the filmmakers because everything in the film’s aesthetic is pumped all the way up to eleven; form the color pallets to the visual tableaus, to that thing where we focus in really close on something while intense music plays. Anyway, the two of them are just minding their own business when Mandy is spotted by a passing van full of drugged up killer hippies led by the “charismatic” leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roach) who makes it their mission to recruit her for their cause. Things spiral out of control from there which leads to Mandy being captured, OTHER stuff happening, and Red having more than enough reason to find these bastards and met out some woodland vengeance on them for what they’ve done. Along the way he’ll meet old friends who help him on his journey, he’ll create the perfect weapon to exact his unholy and metal as heck revenge, and even fight some… interesting fellows who I’m not sure are supposed to be REAL or not, but in a movie like this that hardly matters. Will Red find this roving gang of murders before they leave the forest for good and move on to their next victims? Just how far will Red go to get what he’s after, and what will he give up along the way? Is it just me, or is this a Ghost Rider movie that forgot to include Ghost Rider?
Roger Ebert said in his review of Battlefield Earth said “The director has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” which is not only a hilariously biting critique of the film itself but also imparts the basic wisdom that fancy camera tricks, great cinematography, and and even great stylistic direction cannot be used effectively when done without purpose; and if you think it’s pretentious of me to start this review with a quote, just wait until you see the movie itself! I didn’t HATE this movie, but it has to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had to sit through all year and it’s ESPECIALLY annoying because pretty much all of its problems are in post-production and therefore could be fixed rather easily. Then again, I guess it would be missing the POINT (whatever point it is the filmmakers were going for) to make radical changes to its style and pacing, but it’s all so oppressive and numbing to a story that on its own had potential. Okay, it’s not the most ORIGINAL revenge movie ever made (imagine if John Wick and Drive Angry had a low budget baby), but Nic Cage sells the hell out of it in the moments where the movie isn’t getting in its own way which is sadly MAYBE five to ten percent of it. Seriously, you go to the trouble of getting NICOLAS FREAKING CAGE, and you try smother his performance with your oddball cinematography!? He doesn’t need YOU to make him stand out in a movie! He can do that ALL by himself!!
This movie has basically two issues that kept me from really getting into it; it’s overabundance of style and its glacial pacing which both indicate a production that didn’t know when to say enough was enough or could judiciously cut scenes for a better overall flow. It’s not even that I don’t like the style! Heck, for the first fifteen minutes I was enraptured as the use of colors and the strange ambient rock music (I can best describe it as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown crossed with John Carpenter), but it just never stops! They keep layering more and more lighting tricks on each scene even if it doesn’t make any sense! The music plays so often that it loses its effectiveness when danger ACTUALLY rears its ugly head! There’s voice modulation throughout this movie, and most of the time it makes them more unintelligible than Bane in that one Batman movie nobody likes! All these colors and lights and sounds just keep blasting in your face until you realize… NOTHING IS HAPPENING! Okay fine, there’s SOMETHING happening, but it’s happening so slowly just so we can see more bright colors and have more time with the oh so precious soundtrack that it feels like a never ending string of music videos. You know what? It’s not even that because the music is rarely catchy enough to work on its own (it’s great for a movie soundtrack but not so much for radio play), so I guess it’s more like when really bad music videos have like a five minute intro before the song starts only the song NEVER STARTS in this! Remember how long it took John Wick to set up its character, establish the bad guys, and set him up on his quest for revenge? That took what, fifteen minutes? MAYBE twenty? Here, it takes an HOUR to get to that point and it feels completely unnecessary. The movie takes so much time setting up concepts that are easy to grasp in one scene (let alone half a dozen) and even has a few plot threads that I have no problem calling pretentious because the ultimate payoffs for them don’t go anywhere or land with any sort of impact. You want another quote? BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF WIT; though I guess in this case you’d replace BREVITY with A TIGHTER RUN TIME AND A RESTRAINED PRODUCTION.
Now despite how obvious these issues seem to ME, it doesn’t seem to have bothered a lot of other critics as this is getting overwhelmingly good reviews across the board, and maybe I’m still SORT of in that camp as I do like the movie a bit albeit with much more hesitation and like fifteen asterisks. Let’s try to engage with what this movie is trying to do and see if it succeeds to any degree in those regards. First, is it horrifying? Eh… sure. I mean we’ve seen movies that do the whole BRUTAL MURDER OF AN INNOCENT, NOW LET’S MURDER THE MURDERS BACK type of story, but if you trim it down to the basics of the plot progression, this does work on that level. The good guys are likable, the bad guys are detestable, and the latter give Nicolas Cage one HELL of a motivation to go all vigilante on their asses at the turning point of the movie. Does the movie look good and does its action scenes feel visceral enough to get across Nic’s destressed emotional state? For the most part yes, even if the aforementioned overreliance on lighting, post production effects (I assume some of these color schemes were digitally altered) and oppressive ambiance robs it a bit of its power. The thing is; there’s honestly nothing MISSING here as everything they needed to make this movie great is up there on the screen. It’s just padded in so many ways that it feels like the cinematic equivalent of grinding for levels in a video game just to get to the next story mission, and while those bright spots of the movie are GREAT, it doesn’t make up for the fact that so much of this feels like filler or overindulgent nonsense. There’s a point in this movie where Nicolas Cage has a crossbow in one hand, a battle axe strapped to his back, and his eyes set on a Cenobite Motorcycle Gang, and I just couldn’t muster up the kind of enthusiasm I should because of how long and arduous it was just to get to that point. Let me make this clear; this movie has CENOBITES ON MOTORCYCLES, and yet it manages to feel utterly muted by the sheer amount of excess surrounding it! It’s almost like there’s a REASON action movies have moments to breath between set pieces and horror movies don’t layer jump scares one after the other! You can’t make any one scene feel important or have any sort of impact if the framing never contrasts mundanity with abnormality and puts everything on an equal level of import. The scenes of Nic Cage and Andrea Riseborough eating dinner and sitting on a couch are shot the same way as scenes of him wildly swinging a weapon at a motor cycle monster. No contrast, no restraint, no reason to care.
Let me take a step back and say something nice about this movie because at this point it sounds like I’m about to call it an utter failure that’s not worth seeing at all. I DID like a good chunk of this movie and the scenes where it works are incredibly entertaining. It’s got a style to it that may be excessively used, but is very unique to that era of rock and roll myth making; kind of like the over the top aesthetic Brütal Legend had only with a much more survival horror tone than that of an action fantasy. Everyone in this does a solid job with their performances even if no one can really escape out from under the shadow of Nicolas Cage, and while I’m not the BIGGEST fan of the way characters are utterly brutalized in this movie, its effective for getting the emotional stakes across which is then knocked out of the park by Nicolas Cage’s reactions to it. It’s genuinely heartbreaking at the beginning of the second half when he has to deal with the grief and the trauma of what just happened, and how much it doesn’t even feel like anything is missing even if you know it is. The events just happened with no rhyme or reason, and the world looks exactly the same except for this one horrific spot that was ripped out of it. Hell, these scenes are ALSO great because it’s the only time in the movie where the overabundance of style disappears and its shot with a very straightforward and down to earth tone that does a great job of selling you on the rawness of the situation. IMAGINE THAT! NOT BATHING EVERYTHING IN NEON COLORS WITH MUSIC BLARING CAN BE AN EFFECTIVE STYLE ON ITS OWN!!
There are filmmakers out there that can sell a movie almost entirely on its style like Tarsem Singh, Baz Lurman, or even Michael Bay. This guy MAY have some potential considering how brilliant some of the landscapes are, and it’s not like ANY of the directors I mentioned have sterling filmographies, but this is not the best use of his talents and he needs to be reined in if he’s gonna be making more movies in the future. I don’t recommend seeing this in theaters even if you’re one of the lucky few who has a nearby theater playing this. It’s way too long at two hours, it can’t pace itself to save its life, and while the aesthetics are interesting at first, they just overwhelm the sense and ultimately make everything feel dull and washed out when they SHOULD stand out like a flaming bus screaming down the road blasting Coheed and Cambria at max volume and played backwards. If I don’t feel all that invested in seeing CENOBITES ON MOTORCYCLES due to how poorly you paced the movie up to that point, you seriously have some explaining to do to the Committee of Awesomeness. The punishment for underutilizing lifetime member Nicolas “Prickly Pear” Cage is six months of directing infomercials while wearing the Nickelback T-shirt of Penance.