Nicolas Cage: examining his straight-to-DVD movies

Last year we watched ten of the recent straight-to-DVD films of Mr Nicolas Cage. Since then, he's made six more...

This article has been updated to include six new films: Dog Eat Dog, The Trust, USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage, Southern Fury, Army Of One and Vengeance: A Love Story.

The first Nicolas Cage movie I saw wasn’t one of the cool ones. It wasn’t Wild At Heart, Raising Arizona or even Valley Girl. It was the Cher rom-com, Moonstruck.

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My mum, having just gone through an acrimonious divorce, was trying to drum up the optimism to find love again, and apparently that involved watching a lot of rom-coms where an idealised – or at least intrinsically whimsical – version of love prevailed over boring old steadfast responsibility.

She would watch Dirty Dancing three or four times in a day, rewinding the ending relentlessly and bawling her eyes out. A VHS of Baby Boom was worn down until the tape resembled a type of grey, flimsy nylon. I hesitate to imagine what she was projecting with repeated viewings of Overboard, but suffice to say that the retrospectively problematic consent grey area of a flick was in heavy rotation.

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I was resigned to watching them with her. There wasn’t a whole lot more to do in those days and, in exchange for putting up with the endless cycle of True Love Totally Winning Out In 90 Minutes Or Less, she would let me rent whatever I wanted to watch in my own downtime. Terrible parenting strategy, admittedly – I was the only 7-year-old in my sleepy village primary school writing Fright Night fan-fic – but without this Faustian bargain I probably wouldn’t be sitting here chatting to you about films today, so I’m gonna give the old girl a pass.

The plot of Moonstruck, with its tale of true love conquering all, went right over my 9-year-old head. Back then, I couldn’t have given a monkeys whether Cher lived happily-ever-after with her toy boy love interest from the local bakery or not, but what did fascinate me was the actor playing that toy boy love interest – Mr Nicolas Cage.

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There was just something so epically weird about him and his performance; something so unexpected and unnervingly refreshing. Just before hitting double digits, I was officially a Nicolas Cage fan, and I knew from then on I had to see everything he was in.

Everything.

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For a while, that was easy. Most, if not all, of the films he was in were inherently watchable, and that was before we hit peak Cage in 1995, where he acquired a well-earned Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and also somehow pulled off the action hat trick of Con Air, The Rock and Face/Off before 1997 was even over.

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But then there was 8MM, and Snake Eyes, and Gone In Sixty Seconds, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The wheels were coming off the Cage wagon and in the ensuing years there have been only a few movies that even Cage fans have been able to agree on as actually being good – and I expect you could probably name them using only one hand’s worth of your fingers.

By 2009, it emerged that there was a serious financial reason behind Cage’s film choices. It was reported that he’d blown through a $150 million fortune living the high life and that his eccentricities – such as expensive comics, Elvis memorabilia and dinosaur skulls – didn’t come cheap. The tax man was on his heels for $13 million and creative corners were definitely starting to be cut. We found ourselves in a new era of Cage – one that we have sadly not emerged from as of yet.

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I’ve now trawled through sixteen of the movies he’s made in the six years (most of which have eventually found their way to supermarket shelves and bargain bins) in search of a gem…

Trespass (2011)

IMDb – 5.3, Rotten Tomatoes – 10%

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Joel Schumacher directs Cage in this brisk and generic 80-ish minute home invasion thriller where he plays a businessman who is living an elaborate and expensive life on credit, unbeknownst to the robbers who storm his family’s mansion assuming that the contents of his safe might be their meal ticket. The fallout from this assault leads to a showdown between desperate characters who have everything – and nothing – to lose.

This is a blue and orange film, mired in the complementary colour quicksand of the Transformers epoch that Hollywood has still not fully found the courage to quit. Even desert darling Fury Road trucked with it and in Trespass we’re stuck with it in a major way – during most scenes, there’s a blue light shining on one side of the actor’s face and an orange glow on the other.

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The film itself is competently directed. Schumacher may well have given us the Bat Nipples, but he’s also managed to gift us with A Time To Kill, Tigerland and The Lost Boys over the years. He knows how to put a movie together, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly special about this one. Our man Cage also keeps it fairly low-key throughout, briefly raising his tone but never quite reaching anything approaching the kind of jerking, apoplectic nuances we know and love.

As the credits rolled on Trespass, I started to worry. What if… well, what if they were all like this? Disappointing, almost instantly forgettable, and without the spectacular Cage moments you hope will be there to still make a film worth a watch? I tried to brush this feeling off and headed into the second film with my chin up.

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The Frozen Ground (2013)

IMDb – 6.4, Rotten Tomatoes – 61%

This directorial debut from kiwi Scott Walker is brought to us with a rather too on-the-nose colour palette (cold as hell) and has Cage playing it downbeat and straight-faced as a state trooper who is determined to track down serial killer John Cusack in this fictionalised account of crimes committed by Alaskan murderer Robert Hansen.

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The film has two main problems. The first is the casting of Cusack as a serial killer, which may have worked out fine if he’d decided to do anything particularly different in this film than he normally does. As it is, he’s just sort of, y’know, him, and so it’s hard to suspend disbelief and buy into the grimness of his crimes, despite knowing they really happened.

The second problem is that the film, with all good intentions, wants the audience to re-evaluate its treatment of sex workers by pointing out that the reason this spree of crimes went on as long as it did was because no one cared about the women involved. It does this by setting up a central talky relationship between Cage and one of Hansen’s escaped victims (Vanessa Hudgens), but this never quite gels with the rest of the race-against-time plot or its incredibly Se7en-ish score and we’re left with a film that’s just kind of ok.

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This was not the film to quell my initial nerves about the overall quality of what was to come, and I found myself nervously glancing at the pile of Cage outings still yet to be watched.

Justice (2011)

IMDb – 6.2, Rotten Tomatoes – 27%

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Also known stateside as Seeking Justice, this surprisingly watchable action-thriller from Species director Roger Donaldson has a very decent supporting cast that includes Guy Pearce, January Jones and Cage’s strangely coiffed goatee. Have we ever gotten to the bottom of why he insists on changing his whole hair and beard style for every film? I badly want to know if he feels it genuinely affects his performance.

After Cage’s wife (Jones) is raped and left for dead, he gets a surprising offer from a mysterious syndicate of vigilantes who promise him the death of the man responsible in exchange for a ‘favour’ at a later date. Cage, in his grief, jumps at the opportunity – only to regret it when he becomes embroiled in a twisted eye-for-an-eye conspiracy.

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Visually, we’re just shy of Fincher green here and there are a few too many Dutch angles for comfort, but the editing is tight and we even get a little bit of Fun Cage in the first ten minutes or so (although he’s quickly extinguished as the main story begins).

Overall, I enjoyed watching Justice and would say it’s one of the more entertaining ones on this list. It’s not going to be a film that makes into your collection for repeat viewings, but you could do worse than to throw this on Netflix at 11pm on a Friday night.

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My hopes now significantly up, I pressed on with the next film.

Stolen (2012)

IMDb – 5.5, Rotten Tomatoes – 16%

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Cage reunites with Con Air director Simon West for what should be a slam dunk for the pair of them but ends up being a swing and a miss.

The plot concerns Cage falling foul of the cops after a bank heist. As they haul him off to prison for a fair few years, his gang manage to get off scot-free. Ex-partner-in-crime Josh Lucas isn’t too happy that Cage ditched their $10 million spoils and wants a share now that he’s a free man, so he kidnaps his daughter and holds her for ransom in exchange for it. There’s just one problem: Cage burned the money and has nothing to bargain with.

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Where to start with this one. I’m a huge Con Air fan and have been known to be a bit of a West apologist on top – defending The General’s Daughter and the first Tomb Raider film for all their faults – but this is a tough one to find great things to say about.

There’s the peak 90s score, which goes dug-uh-dug-uh-dug-uh-dug-uh-dug-uh so you know what’s up (action, fam), the marketing of the thing as a Taken-type thriller positioning Cage as the Neeson of the piece (it’s more of an action-comedy and even the comedy parts fall flatter than a packet of ham) and then…there’s Josh Lucas.Lucas seems to have wandered onto the set from another film. Maybe a live-action Disney one starring a dog that talks? I dunno, but his performance is so cartoonish and bizarre, there are few other explanations that make sense.

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It’s all just a pile-up of weird decisions that leave us up shit creek without even the paddle of a decent Cage performance to help guide us home. Questionable.

Tokarev (2014)

IMDb – 5, Rotten Tomatoes – 14%

Tokarev is a fairly lacklustre and grim tale. Rumour has it that Cage had seen the director’s previous effort, Neon Flesh, and had become so enamoured with it that he pursued a role in Tokarev rather adamantly, but having not seen Neon Flesh it’s kind of hard to understand why – there’s nothing within the confines of the movie to suggest that we’d end up with anything exceptional.

The film sees the man of the hour having given up a life of crime after an ambush on a Russian mobster finds him taking home a huge score (and the mobster’s Tokarev gun, which he keeps as a souvenir). Living a peaceful life with his wife and daughter, his world is blown apart when his daughter is ambushed by bad guys in the family home and killed – with a Tokarev gun. Cage sets out on a killing and maiming spree with his old crew, determined to find the Russians responsible for his daughter’s death, and I probably don’t need to insert a spoiler alert here to tell you that there’s a tragic twist coming in the final minutes. Tokarev, which was originally called Rage, might just as well have been retitled ‘Chekhov’.

We get a few glimpses of Cage off the chain during the film’s 90-minute runtime, but the main problem here – and with the majority of the films on this list – is that it feels like he’s just a mediocre actor getting through one script after another with nothing exceptional to offer, and that’s very disheartening.

Left Behind (2014)

IMDb – 3.1, Rotten Tomatoes – 2%

A remake of the first in a series of Christian films about the rapture from the early oughts, Left Behind is the most baffling career decision Cage has made so far. You’re immediately on dangerous ground when you make a religious movie, but to remake a really bad one – and have it somehow turn out worse – is asking for trouble.

Packed wall-to-wall with terrible camerawork, woeful special effects and barely scraping enough energy together to satisfy the needs of a standard made-for-TV drama, the Left Behind remake manages to be no real improvement on the original.

Cage plays airline pilot Rayford Steele (a character name so nerve-crunchingly awful that Jackie Collins would have dismissed it when considering names for a roguish, happy-shagging billionaire), who is a sinner (he’s trying to cheat on his wife for some reason) so he gets LEFT BEHIND during the rapture, which takes all the true believers up to heaven and leaves us garbage people down below to face the apocalypse with only our atheist moral compass and some ropey CGI fire to keep us warm during the end of days.

And that is kind of all there is. The characters have some surface chats about faith and what it all could possibly mean, but overall there’s nothing of any substance to keep us engaged and Cage may as well not even be there – he could have easily been replaced with absolutely any other actor.

If you’re making your way up to the counter with a copy of this movie, or if you’re thinking of adding it to your Netflix queue, I urge you to make sure it is LEFT BEHIND.

Outcast (2014)

IMDb – 4.6, Rotten Tomatoes – 6%

Finally, some respite. Outcast is a terrible film; directed (poorly) by a stuntman, filled with near-unwatchable action and so eager to culturally appropriate the hell out of its 12th century Chinese setting that it completely forgets to even try to pretend otherwise.

This is everything I hoped for. I can get on board with a film so awful that it provokes laughs where it aches for tears. That kind of experience is at least preferable to sitting through something utterly dull and lifeless.

Hayden Christensen is the star here (I thought we’d made that illegal, but I looked it up and it’s still somehow all above board – please write to your elected official about this as soon as you can find the time) and he decides to roll the dice and go for a steady English accent, but comes up somewhere between a light Irish and a heavy Liverpudlian.

Realising that he’s up to his neck in the accent now and pressing on, he plops on his permanently-lobotomised stare and tries his very mediocre-est to play an unscrupulous, lapsed crusader called Jacob who ends up in China for reasons unknown, and who gets embroiled in the plight of a young heir to a Chinese throne who’s been set up by his older, much more violent brother.

Cage appears in the opening scene before disappearing for an hour, giving us just a glimpse of the magnificence to come. Filmed almost entirely in Dutch angles, he appears in Outcast as a big brother-type to Christensen before the two part ways and he sets off(screen) to become a notorious vigilante called The White Ghost, or “the woyt gawst” as he pronounces it. Yes, it turns out that Cage will also be attempting a cod English accent and, oh, what a thing it is to hear. “Oi aym the woyt gawst!” he hollers in a scene where he also scratches his beard with a live snake. Amazing.

Everything about his performance is so fantastically distracting – including squinting one eye closed for a long time to indicate he has lost an eye in the past, instead of wearing a patch – that I can’t help but give the film two thumbs up for its sheer ludicrousness.

Premium Cage.

Dying Of The Light (2014)

IMDb – 4.4, Rotten Tomatoes – 9%

Dying Of The Light is a very weird affair.

Cage plays a CIA agent who is suffering from frontal temporal dementia and so is going to have to give up his lifelong mission to find the terrorist that tortured him in Africa 22 years ago. Except he’s not going to do that; giving up is not an option, and he soon has rookie Anton Yelchin along for the ride to settle the score once and for all. This was the first film I’d seen Yelchin in since his tragic, untimely death, and so it was subsequently a very tough watch whenever he was onscreen.

It’s an interesting set-up because the symptoms of the dementia, such as sudden outbursts and inappropriate behaviour, give Cage license to go completely balls-to-the-wall – but the performance he turns in is actually massively understated. It’s a choice he made as an actor because he obviously wanted to take the illness seriously, but it does kinda rob us of the kind of thing we might have been expecting.

The movie, as it stands, is a mess. Director Paul Schrader (Hardcore, American Gigolo) disowned it after backers became furious that he’d produced something along the lines of an introspective tale about the meaninglessness of vengeance instead of the generic spy thriller they were promised, and the film was subsequently re-cut without him. What we’re left with is an interesting mess of approaches that could have been something more than the sum of their parts, but sadly didn’t stand a chance by the time a final cut was produced.

Pay The Ghost (2015)

IMDb – 5.2, Rotten Tomatoes – 11%

I’d not seen a trailer or read anything about Pay The Ghost before I watched it, so I was surprised to find it was a straightforward supernatural horror movie. Cage’s main dabblings with the genre are the shockingly bad Wicker Man remake (we probably don’t need to go over the bees again at this stage) which had the then-lauded Neil LaBute at the helm, and the underrated Season Of The Witch – but as far as I know he hasn’t ever signed on for a by-the-numbers horror like this.

Pay The Ghost sees college professor Cage losing his son during a Halloween carnival and follows his efforts to get him back from the ghost that kidnapped him – a young widow from the 1600s who was burned alive after being suspected of witchcraft and now steals living children from their parents every Halloween.

The tropes are all present and threadbare as we make our way through the film’s hackneyed tale: things move by themselves, visions are had, homeless people have important exposition to dish out, characters are possessed to further the plot and a creepy psychic is called in to investigate. Sadly, the whole thing is not up to the standard of something like James Wan’s Insidious or even the below-average Mama and you will find yourself feeling ripped off even if you’re not a fan of the genre, and I can’t imagine why either Cage or director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Last Exit To Brooklyn) signed up for it in the first place.

The Runner (2015)

IMDb – 4.6, Rotten Tomatoes – 27%

Most of the movies on this list were filmed in New Orleans and this last one is, too. I don’t know what the deal is with tax breaks in that location, but Cage obviously seems happy to hang out there for long periods. I know that whenever I watch one of his movies after this, ‘New Orleans’ will be on the bingo card – possibly centre square – but it’s looking unlikely that any of them will hit the high watermark of Bad Lieutenant.

The film, such as it is, is a slight affair. Cage is a politician trying to make good with the local people down in Narlins after the BP oil spill destroyed their livelihoods. Unfortunately, his weakness for certain vices has been dragged out into the public consciousness and he finds himself losing his seemingly idyllic life to the wind. What will he do next? Well, unlike Anthony Weiner – who this story is clearly based on – he’ll do his very best to make amends.

Director Austin Stark has gone for a bleached-out look with The Runner and relies heavily on handheld camera work throughout. Mixing up long scenes of dialogue filmed in shaky cam with shots of the ocean undulating left me feeling a little queasy, which would be fine if I was watching some IT CAME FROM THE SEA-type schlock horror, but for a political drama it’s less than ideal.

Of the ten movies I watched, this was far and away the one with the best central performance from Cage. Since it happens to be the most recent, that gives me a little hope for the future. He’s also looking his age here, which is no bad thing.

The film is fine, but like so many of the others it’s only vaguely engaging and pretty much instantly forgettable.

Dog Eat Dog (2016)

IMDb – 4.7, Rotten Tomatoes – 46%

Shot in around 35 days in Ohio during the late stages of 2015, Dog Eat Dog is a fairly unpleasant and relentlessly unlovable film from director Paul Schrader (Cat People, Auto Focus) who disowned the last film he made with Nicolas Cage (Dying Of The Light – elsewhere on this list), but obviously didn’t let that experience dissuade him from giving their partnership another punt.

The basic plot is something you can probably see through to its inevitable conclusion in your mind right now. Troy (Cage) is a criminal mastermind, his friend Diesel is losing interest in the lawful life, and as for their other friend Mad Dog? Well, the clue’s in the name there; he’s completely lost the plot. All three men are one strike away from a lifetime in the slammer, but decide to pull off one last heist together – it’s the ultimate payday or bust for these dudes.

Although the film itself is a chore and you’re likely to be relieved when it’s over – none of the characters are people you could ever warm to and the dialogue between them also is a snooze – there are a few glimpses into the talent that Schrader has behind the camera when he puts his mind to it. An early scene with Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) that sees him load up on drugs and stare at his reflection in the mirror, gurning and grinning for what seems like forever, had me wondering if the director still might have a really great film left in him.

It’s not this one, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be given its IMDb plot keywords, which include ‘black and white scene’, ‘dragged by a car’, ‘reference to Taylor Swift’ and ‘carrying a dead body’. All those things should make for a pretty fun watch, but sadly they don’t in this case.

USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage (2016)

IMDb – 5.1, Rotten Tomatoes – 9%

The sinking of the USS Indianapolis led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. 300 men went down with the ship when it was torpedoed by the Japanese during World War II, and nearly 600 died floating in the water waiting for help to arrive.

Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Baadasssss!) is perhaps not the first director you’d imagine might step up to helm a dramatic retelling of this tragic story, but here we are. Van Peebles chose Cage as his star, and he plays the ship’s captain Charles McVay, who was later court-martialled for his part in the incident and committed suicide in his waning years, wracked with guilt over things that were primarily out of his control.

There is a serious lack of money here, and the first half of the film is chock-full of cringeworthy foreshadowing, the obligatory redshirting of officers, and poor special effects. A predictably off-kilter performance from Tom Sizemore is often the only thing holding our interest as the film cuts between building its slightly-written characters and signposting the ominous approach of battle toward the midway point.

Brushing aside the factual errors in USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage – and there are plenty – the film is also less cinematic than you’d hope and often leans into TV movie territory, especially during the internal scenes, which would be fine if it didn’t have a running time knocking on 130 minutes.

A lacklustre performance from Cage also doesn’t help, but if you can cope with all its faults and you’re a fan of historical war movies, it’ll probably do you fine on an afternoon, as long as you don’t expect too much.

Army Of One (2016)

IMDb – 5.0, Rotten Tomatoes – 27%

Larry Charles has made a decent life for himself producing TV shows over the last 25 years or so. Stuff like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage has helped his career tick along nicely, but the films he’s directed himself have been a bit hit or miss, and the trilogy he helmed for Sacha Baron Cohen in the form of Borat, Bruno and The Dictator was either your cup of tea or it wasn’t.

Last year he put out Army Of One, the basically-true story of Gary Faulkner, an unemployed handyman who believes that God wants him to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In the film version of this bonkers real life tale, Cage plays Faulkner (complete with a bizarre voice that the actual man doesn’t really have) and Russell Brand plays God (or rather, Russell Brand plays Russell Brand as God).

Army Of One could have possibly been a great comedy, were the laughs actually there. It’s competently directed, and everyone seems to be trying their best with this amusing story, but that’s all the film ends up being as it floats along: just kinda amusing.

Cage’s performance, however, is definitely the main thing worth watching. He really goes for it.

The Trust (2016)

IMDb – 5.4, Rotten Tomatoes – 61%

Despite its rather uninspiring title, the higher Rotten Tomatoes score bestowed upon The Trust is a good marker for how much better this film is than any of the others on the list.

This smooth directorial debut from brothers Alex and Ben Brewer is also exceptionally well edited by Lauren Connolly (The Strain, Masters Of Sex, Horrible Bosses), and all should be proud of the film they no doubt had to put together on quite a low budget.

In The Trust, Sergeant David Waters (Cage) and Lieutenant Jim Stone (Elijah Wood) both work in a Las Vegas Evidence Management unit and, while they struggle to make ends meet, Waters comes up with a plan to pull off an easy heist based on evidence that he scrapes together from case files involving a local drug dealer. To delve further into the plot at this stage would spoil some of its best moments, so I’ll refrain, but suffice to say things don’t go quite as well as the two men are presuming they will.

The quirky beginning of the film deftly downshifts into a more serious tone, and it wasn’t long before my heart was pounding in my ears. Elijah Wood is on fine form as Stone, and Cage is just bonkers enough without overplaying the role, so the whole film finds an even and proficient tone along the way.

At times extremely tense and ultimately very satisfying, I would watch this again in a heartbeat. Recommended.

Vengeance: A Love Story (2017)

IMDb – N/A, Rotten Tomatoes – N/A

Cage plays police officer John Dromoor in this hastily-retitled adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Rape: A Love Story.

After a random encounter with a beautiful, blonde single mother (Anna Hutchison – The Cabin In The Woods) at a bar leaves an impression on him, Cage is devastated to later find her raped and left for dead with her young daughter, who was present during the awful event. Seeking justice (and vengeance) after the courts fail to properly prosecute the men responsible for the crime, the ex-Gulf War veteran decides to take matters into his own hands.

In Oates’ original novella, Dromoor’s past is explored in more detail, but in Vengeance: A Love Story neither his military backstory or his growing bond with the little girl are fully developed, pulling some serious punches from what should be a satisfying denouement. Why, in this case, does Dromoor put everything on the line to go full vigilante? We don’t truly know as viewers, despite feeling like we may make the same decision.

Cage is fine (if understated) as Dromoor, and a few extra scenes might have made this a solid effort from stuntman-turned-director Johnny Martin, but as the final cut stands, the narrative lacks an essential layer needed to pull the movie up to where it should be, and the whole thing comes up short.

Southern Fury, a.k.a. Arsenal (2017)

IMDb – 4.0, Rotten Tomatoes – 4%

Steven C. Miller returns. The director has produced a fair few of these straight-to-DVD movies now, but this is his first time working with Cage and he really lets him go off the chain.

Adrian Grenier (Entourage) is the star here, playing a law-abiding young man whose older brother (Johnathon Shaech) just can’t stay out of trouble. After Shaech is kidnapped and held for ransom by the local bad guy-in-chief (Nicolas Cage) Grenier has to put his life on hold to get rid of this drug-addled menace once and for all, so that he and his brother can get back to playing baseball, drinking a few beers, and all that nice wholesome stuff.

After completing Marauders with Grenier and Shaech, Miller seems to have stepped straight off that set and onto this one. It’s not a very good film, but Cage – complete with a hilarious fake wig and nose – brings enough insanity to the table to make his scenes alone worth watching. You might want to fast-forward the rest, though.

Steven C. Miller has another straight-to-DVD movie out this year, where he will once again be back in the loving embrace of Mr. Bruce Willis, so we’ll no doubt update you on how that goes.

Until then, put the bunny back in the box.