John Cusack: examining his recent straight-to-DVD movies

John Cusack has made 17 films in four years. We've found the ones that have gone all-but straight to DVD and watched them...

John Cusack is a bit of a Hollywood oddity. There’s no pattern to the type of movie he will choose to do, so he’s always kept us on our toes. Sure, he’ll make a dumb action movie, but that will often afford him the chance to make a few smaller gambles later on. Up until the last few years he’s played the system very well, but recently his ethic appears to have, um, waned? A little?

Since the heady days of Say Anything and Sixteen Candles he’s come to represent a sort of slightly weird-looking, awkwardly charming, offbeat everyman that men aged 18-49 can look at and go ‘me’” – which is fine. There’s a place for that, as there is a place for most things in the movies. The man has made some good movies; no one can deny that. But the question I always end up asking myself is: are they good because he’s in them?

Regardless of whether your answer to that question is “yes, of course” or “well, maybe not” there came a tipping point in Cusack’s career and – because I’m the kind of unbearable git who’s fond of pointing to a particular point in time and declaring “here’s where it all went wrong” – I’m gonna say that it may well have been when even I, as a somewhat disenfranchised fan, got excited for The Raven. Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe is a thing that should not have been able to fail, and yet we found ourselves wallowing in it nonetheless.

It’s not that we can’t accept that he’s capable of dishing us up a turkey. We’ve sat through Serendipity and we’re aware that Must Love Dogs is a thing that exists, but late at night when we’re tenderly fondling a copy of Con Air (…just me?), The Raven is the one that haunts us like the Tell-Tale Heart of bad Cusack movies.

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In the four years since The Raven, Cusack has made around 17 movies.

17 movies in four years.

Even taking into account the possibility that some of those could’ve sat on the shelf for a while, I think it’s safe to say that John Cusack’s career is not in a good place right now, and may need a hug.

The covers for a fair few of these outings are very similar. We are to understand that Mr Cusack will be portraying the character of White Man With Gun, while his female co-star often cowers slightly behind his shoulder. For what is White Man With Gun without Woman Being Protected By White Man With Gun? Why, it is simply less than what we deserve.

Are there any hidden gems amongst the pile of straight-to-DVD and VOD movies the man has churned out since the numbing disappointment of The Raven? I sat through way too many of the blighters to find out…

The Numbers Station (2013)

IMDb – 5.6/10 Rotten Tomatoes – 32%

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The Numbers Station is a flat action thriller set in the British countryside, where Cusack assumes the role of a CIA agent assigned to protect code operator Malin Akerman at a secret American base. The code station broadcasts the kind of juicy spy secrets that would give Julian Assange at least a semi-lob on, and so it naturally comes under attack from a group of bad guys who want to get their hands on them.

Our man Cusack wanders around The Numbers Station for a crisp 80 minutes of your life you will never get back, having seemingly found himself starring in a story which would barely raise the excitement level in a brief arc during a season of 24, let alone in a cinematic journey. He’s supposed to be playing someone who’s ‘burnt out’ here, but even taking that into consideration his energy level feels low and he appears distracted throughout.

Visually, there’s nothing here that’s going to blow you away and it was hard for me to find anything within the confines of the film to recommend generally. It’s not the worst film ever, but it is a film that you will likely easily forget, and I know this because I was at least an hour in before I realised I’d seen it before.

The Carrier (2014)

IMDb – 3.7/10 Rotten Tomatoes – 10%

The Carrier, which was originally called The Bag Man, has been repackaged here with a generic action DVD cover after falling flat Stateside.

Cusack plays the main character, Jack; a professional killer whose boss (Robert De Niro) thinks he’s going soft, so he recruits him for a rather baffling job: pick up a bag, don’t look in the bag, take the bag to a motel and await further instructions. This is a test of his commitment to De Niro, and whether he can be fully trusted. It’s made clear that if he looks in the bag, he’s dead.

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Arriving at the motel, Jack encounters a series of off-the-wall characters that engage him in back-and-forth stage play dialogue, including oddball Crispin Glover and pimp Sticky Fingaz. They all seem to want to get mixed up in his very simple assignment because there’s a twist coming, but sadly it’s unfulfilling and completely ridiculous. Weirdly, the story itself isn’t too far away from Cusack’s earlier motel scenario concept thriller Identity. So good he made it twice, I guess.

The original draft of the screenplay was penned by James Russo, an actor who has appeared in a great many films including Freeway, My Own Private Idaho, Donnie Brasco and Django Unchained – though, possibly crucially, it was rewritten at some point.

Cusack – along with everyone else – is fine in The Carrier, but sadly it’s a muddle of character machinations and offhanded cruelty that stretches the basic idea to breaking point. You can maybe see that there was a good film in amongst the mess we ended up with, but the reality of the final package is that it doesn’t come together to form a satisfying whole.

Despite all that, it’s always great to see Crispin Glover being weird in literally anything.

Drive Hard (2014)

IMDb – 4.3/10 Rotten Tomatoes – 8%

Drive Hard is quite the thing.

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The title, which I have typed as ‘Die Hard‘ and ‘Drive Angry‘ at various points with no friendly autocorrect algorithm to rely on, suggests we are going to watch some reet good car chasin’ – so I’m immediately on board (I can’t even drive, so anyone able to weave a car in and out of traffic at 100 miles an hour is basically a nuclear physicist to me).

As the never-ending juggernaut of Fast & Furious films rack up the dollars, we’re all fully prepped to check out a new, solid, reet-good-car-chasin’ movie and therefore I was initially happy to take a look at Drive Angry. Hard. DAMMIT.

This, however, is no Tokyo Drift (the best one, don’t argue).

Plot-wise, we’ve got bank robber Cusack deciding to take retired race car driver and unfulfilled driving instructor Thomas Jane hostage to be his optimal getaway driver. Jane, here rocking the look of a man who has just purchased The Best Of Dire Straits on CD and is definitely considering putting down a deposit on an Audi TT in the next few months, is obviously not happy about it.

There’s not much else going on in this underwhelming 80s-throwback-feeling film, which is set in Australia for some reason and as a consequence often retains the look of an Australian soap opera in between car-based scenes.

Cusack’s performance is…well, let’s just say it’s less than stellar. He lollops around Drive Hard (YES, nailed it) in an oversized dark suit and baseball cap ensemble that makes him look a little sickly throughout and his exhausted face has the fixed expression of someone that is more than fully aware that he’s being directed by the man behind Leprechaun 4: In Space.

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Lads, it’s not good.

The Factory (2012)

IMDb – 5.8/10 Rotten Tomatoes – No Score

We know what we’re getting into when the Dark Castle logo pops up at the start of a movie. Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis’ production house has given us many of these cinematic blessings, including Gothika, Thirteen Ghosts, Orphan and the good one (Splice), so when that logo appears I’m fairly sure that I’m about to sit through an average, mid-budget horror-thriller that doesn’t get either too grimy or too ambitious.

Cusack stars here as a cop who has been chasing a particular serial killer for a long time. The killer picks up girls off the street and his latest victim is Cusack’s daughter, so he needs to finally catch up to this monster before his bairn catches a permanent case of The Deaths. Suddenly, months of what we can only imagine must have been the worst police work ever on his part are in the rear-view and he’s putting the puzzle pieces of evidence together quicker than David Cage on an amphetamine binge.

In terms of performance, Cusack may have gotten a bit more money for this bad boy because he’s running at about 65% of his acting ability. It’s a huge step up from some of the other films on this list, but his performance doesn’t elevate the material in the same way that previous Dark Castle stars like Peter Sarsgaard, Geoffrey Rush or Adrien Brody managed.

Overall, The Factory is playing with some decent production values and the whole thing builds towards an inevitably nonsensical twist that’ll have you groaning, but if you’re in the mood for this kind of nonsense it’ll do you fine.

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Reclaim (2014)

IMDb 5.1/10 Rotten Tomatoes – 0%

So here we are; it’s the best of the bunch.

Cusack isn’t the main star in Reclaim, but instead plays the bad guy for a change – helping to run a scam that fools rich people into thinking they’re adopting kids from other countries on the up-and-up, only to snatch them back and move on after they’ve pilfered every penny from their rich, desperate pockets. But this time, he fucked with the wrong couple. Ryan Phillippe and wife Rachelle Lefevre aren’t going to be quite so easy to get rid of because they’ve already been through hell and back, and are quite prepared to go through even more shit to keep hold of the kid they came for.

This isn’t a great movie. Hell, it might not even be a particularly good one – but it is watchable trash, which I can 100% get behind. Debatably, without Lefevre – who is a criminally underrated actress that effortlessly drags the whole thing out of made-for-TV territory – this may not have been as decent, but it has some well-edited action and suitably racks up the tension between the main couple and antagonist Cusack.

As it happens, both Cusack and the film benefit from him not being the main focus of our attentions and it could be that playing smaller character roles could be a more agreeable direction for him in the future. 2013’s Adult World – which I didn’t sit through for this particular stint, but rather of my own volition about a year or so ago – is further proof that he can still be really quite good in a more minor part.

Only time will tell us what the future holds for Mr Cusack. In the meantime, I bid you adieu.

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Up next (you knew it was coming): Nicolas Cage. It’s gonna be a monster. It might, er, take a bit longer to put together too, but rest assured, work has begun…

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