“The hungry rabbit jumps.” That’s the pivotal phrase in this Nic Cage thriller, which also served as the film’s title until some sharp-eared executive pointed out how odd it sounded. Disappointingly, that same sharp-eared executive decided to name it Justice instead – Seeking Justice in the US – a bland title for what turns out to be a largely forgettable film.
Nic Cage plays Will Gerard, a New Orleans English teacher who dances badly in night clubs while wearing a glittery mask, and plays chess with his best friend, who happens to be Michael out of Lost (Harold Perrineau).
Will’s also lucky enough to be married to picturesque professional cellist Laura, played by January Jones. (On a side note, it’s notable that, as Cage gets older, the love interests who are brought in to cleave to his bosom are getting younger and younger. But we’ll gloss over that.)
Shortly after the couple’s anniversary, Laura is brutally assaulted as she heads home from a rehearsal. Later, while anxiously waiting for his wife to regain consciousness in a hospital waiting area, Will is accosted by Simon (a creepily gaunt Guy Pearce), who claims he can have Laura’s attacker taken care of in exchange for a few simple favours.
In spite of his better judgement, Will’s anger wins out, and he agrees to Simon’s proposal. Laura’s attacker is subjected to a dose of terminal vigilante justice, but the repercussions for Will are, inevitably, unpleasant and far-reaching.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that director Roger Donaldson has directed some extremely good films. The 80s Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out was fantastic, even if it’s not a movie often discussed in recent years (though we gave it the respect it deserved in our recent list of great Costner flicks). Jason Statham thriller The Bank Job was also a really good film, and the sci-fi potboiler Species has some great moments of action and suspense.
Justice has some great moments itself – odd sequences, here and there, that hint at the tension of No Way Out. There’s a creepy home invasion, and a taut highway chase sequence. But these are merely glimmers of interest in an otherwise dreary and disappointing thriller.
What’s most galling is that there’s a far better thriller buried somewhere in here, but it can’t escape from its maze of mediocrity. Setting Justice in New Orleans is a logical move, since it still resonates with the horrible destruction of hurricane Katrina. Its locations are often blandly chosen – inordinate periods are spent in bars or under anonymous concrete bridges – but occasionally, the reverberations of a city shattered by disaster still cut through.
Justice’s premise is also a compelling twist on the old revenge thriller template – instead of having its protagonist arm himself and embark on a rampage of righteous fury, the object of Will’s hatred is despatched for him, which is quite an interesting idea. If we were in the same situation as Will, sitting in that hospital waiting area, with our loved one horribly injured, wouldn’t we at least consider the offer of having that crime avenged? If we did, how would one live with the resulting guilt?
It’s an interesting question that Justice swiftly discards in favour of a fairly generic chase thriller. Like any number of films shown on TV after 10pm, Justice begins with a strong premise, but then sallies forth along a path so familiar that its events can be predicted quite accurately within minutes. As a result, Will’s one of those unfortunate central characters who spends over an hour trying to get to the bottom of a mystery the audience had already solved shortly after the lights went down.
Viewed against the backdrop of appalling Cage films – The Wicker Man, Season Of The Witch, Drive Angry – Justice is by no means the worst, but then again, its mediocrity actually counts as a further black mark. Films like The Wicker Man were so awful that it was quite fun to revel in their goofy dialogue and inept storytelling.
Justice tries to plumb such depths of absurdity, but doesn’t hit rock bottom. In order to agree to Simon’s proposition, Will isn’t asked to simply nod or send a text saying, “Oh go on then” to a stranger’s mobile phone number. Instead, he’s told to buy a pair of chocolate bars from the hospital vending machine. There’s also a certain amount of pleasure to be gleaned from counting how many times the catchphrase “The hungry rabbit jumps” is repeated throughout the film.
Sadly, guffaw-inducing moments such as these are rather sporadic. Even Cage, whose performances can often range from the brilliant (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation) to the downright crazy (Kick-Ass, Face/Off) appears to be on autopilot here, and delivers none of the sweaty mania that made Bad Lieutenant (also set in New Orleans) so memorable.
Justice, then, is a thriller devoid of thrills, devoid of rabbits, and worst of all, devoid of the Cage madness it so desperately needed.