The stars of yesterday now are making three films a year you never knew existed until they show up on Netflix.
In my prior life as a script reader, I certainly read a lot of bad scripts, but at times, an even more common occurrence was a script that seemed to do a great many things right, but somehow fell just short of being something you wanted to champion as a movie. As draining as the terrible scripts were, there’s something pure about clear-cut bad. It takes little effort to explain why they’re unfit.
The real challenges were the scripts that had kind of a decent premise, kind of an okay twist or two, and a lead character who wasn’t bad so much as he or she was just… there. The raw materials are there for what COULD be a script. They just happen to be assembled in the least compelling way possible. It’s competent enough that it feels close to being a movie, but it’s raw enough that you won’t want to put your job on the line to tell someone else to read it. Scripts like this often got the “Consider with Reservations” ranking. If you’ve worked in Hollywood, you’ve probably read a number of scripts like this. If you’re not in the biz, it’s hard to find a good analogy to explain these scripts that need more time to bake.
Then, after a trip to Netflix one recent afternoon, I realized there’s an easy series of examples I can point to. In their library at any given time, you’ll stumble across a ton of recent films you’ve never heard of that star former mega-stars like Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, and Pierce Brosnan.
The men who headlined some of the biggest films of the eighties and nineties now film entire movies that no one knows exists until they show up under the heading “Because you liked Con Air.” Just going back five years, here are the films of just ONE of those aforementioned actors: Stolen, The Croods, The Frozen Ground, Joe, Rage, Outcast, Left Behind, Dying of the Light, The Runner, Pay the Ghost, The Trust, Snowden, The USS Indianapolis, Dog Eat Dog, Army of One, Arsenal, and Vengeance: A Love Story. That’s SEVENTEEN films! How far into that list were you before you were sure I was talking about Nicolas Cage?
Most of those movies are basically direct-to-DVD thrillers in their latest incarnation, but there are a few interesting choices there. Army of One is an unusual quirky film from director Larry Charles (Borat) about a man who believes he’s on a mission from God to capture Osama bin Laden. It’s not the sort of movie that would have done well theatrically. It’s thoroughly bizarre from start to finish (Russell Brand plays Jesus, just to give you a baseline), and the kick of seeing Cage play way against type as a crazy schlub is often tempered by the fact it’s still “Nic Cage as a crazy guy.” He doesn’t disappear into the role and it sorta feels like we’re watching what would be a movie in the Nic Cage version of Jean Claude Van Johnson.
I’m not even sure if I liked it, but it’s a singular brand of crazy and I have to respect that. Now this was not the typical middle-ground kind of script I was referring to earlier. It’s weird enough to compensate for its shortcomings, despite the sense that the satire could be more razor sharp and the directing more polished. But in concept and character, it’s so off the wall that I get how Cage wouldn’t see it as a “Consider with Reservations.” If an actor is going to make seventeen films in five years, they’ve earned the right for a few of them to be balls-out bonkers. In fact, this is how these guys should be used at this point in their career.
Let me give a quick explanation about how the direct market has worked pretty much going back to the days of Golan-Globus. When VHS came, there was a killing to be made in the direct-to-video market, particularly overseas. So producers would throw a lot of money at famous names whose participation would move those units overseas. Often these were actors who were past their glory days here and were no longer getting the big studio offers. So a guy like Chuck Norris or Jean Claude Van Damme got a lead role and probably better money than a studio would offer at that point, and the producers make a killing on foreign sales. This is pretty much how it worked for decades, through the advent of DVD.
The passage of time has meant that guys who were on the top of the A-List in the nineties don’t have the same commercial value for studios. Cage is one of them, but take a look at some of his more active contemporaries.
John Cusack actually beats Cage’s list, appearing in a staggering 18 films in the last five years: The Raven, The Paperboy, The Factory, The Numbers Station, Adult World, The Frozen Ground, The Butler, Grand Piano, The Bag Man, Maps to the Stars, Drive Hard, The Prince, Love and Mercy, Reclaim, Dragon Blade, Chi-Raq, Cell, and Arsenal. Wikipedia specifically lists seven of those as direct-to-video. A few are cameos and some got a token theatrical release. Don’t assume that all of these are bad. Love and Mercy is one of the best of his career, but he’s been very prolific.
Bruce Willis also has made eighteen films, though more of his are recognizable studio titles: Moonrise Kingdom, Lay the Favorite, The Expendables 2, The Cold Light of Day, Looper, Fire with Fire, A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Red 2, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Prince, Vice, Rock the Kashbah, Extraction, Precious Cargo, Marauders, and The Bombing.
Next to those filmographies, former James Bond Pierce Brosnan actually looks rather lazy, for he’s only made 11 films in those five years: Love Is All You Need, The World’s End, The Love Punch, A Long Way Down, The November Man, Some Kind of Beautiful, Survivor, No Escape, A Christmas Star, Urge, and I.T.
Having not seen many of these films, I wouldn’t presume that all of them are the sort of “Consider With Reservations” screenplays I’ve discussed. In the name of expediency, I picked out a few select titles to view. Brosnan’s I.T. sounded the most intriguing. It’s a paranoid techno-thriller in which Brosnan stars as Mike Regan a business tycoon who invites Ed, a young I.T. tech from his company to fix a few wi-fi issues in his state-of-the-art home. While there, the seemingly pleasant twentysomething flirts with Mike’s 17 year-old daughter and when this relationship progresses to the point where Ed is dropping by for family parties, Mike’s character fires him.
As you might expect, this is not a smart move when Ed knows how to hack your entire home and the many cameras contained within, to say nothing of their devices like iPads. His revenge includes sending fake emails to the SEC and secretly filming the daughter masturbating in the shower and then texting it to all her friends. At one point, Ed hacks Mike’s navigation system and sends him the video while also messing with his breaks to cause a crash. Naturally, it turns out that Ed has lied about his background and he’s a complete psycho. It has all the elements of a good stalker thriller… seemingly.
So where does the film go wrong? A good stalker film needs to really give a scenery-chewing bad guy. I’m not personally a fan of the trope where the person turns out to be legitimately deranged (thereby freeing the film of their motivations always needing to make sense), but it’s done often enough. The problem here is the actor playing Ed just isn’t up to the task. Even Swimfan managed to provide a more compelling psycho. When the script makes the stalker two-dimensional, it falls to the actor to bring more to the role, and this performer isn’t up to the task.
The film is also a great object lesson in how just a few issues can throw off the whole thing. If the stalker isn’t the scene-chewing selling point, than our POV relocates to the protagonist. In a technothriller like this, The Net could be a good operational model for how to put the audience in the shoes of someone whose life is being unraveled by nigh-omnipotent technical forces. Twenty years later, The Net’s view of computers and the internet is even cheesier than it was then, but it’s got a pace and an energy to it. It helps that Sandra Bullock is good at playing the confusion and helplessness the situation warrants. And once you consider that, you realize a former James Bond is the wrong casting choice here.
Brosnan excels at playing characters who remain unflappable and in control in even the most desperate situations. It’s why he was an underrated Bond and why he was right for movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and The Matador. Here, it short-stops any sense of emotional engagement with his character and predicament as things accelerate. It’s not entirely Brosnan’s fault — he’s playing the character as written and that person has a strong degree of coolness and formality to him.
It’s also notable that the single greatest humiliation that Ed doles out is not aimed at Mike — it’s his daughter. The stalker tries to get under Mike’s skin by sexually humiliating Kaitlyn, and there’s something unseemly about how the movie objectifies her as much as Ed does. It’d be less egregious if SHE was the protagonist. Frankly it’s not hard to imagine a version where the story is told through her eyes and is a lot more effective. Can you spot it?
The teenage actress isn’t the player who gets funding for this film. Brosnan’s star value is essentially subsidizing the production. He has to be the star, which is why you end up with this movie that comes so close to working, but is done in by its own restrictions. It’s also the same mistakes you see in a script by a writer who has decent material but hasn’t considered every nuance about WHY some movies work.
Going back to those filmographies, you might have noticed there are a few films that show up on more than one actor’s list. Both Cage and Cusack star in The Frozen Ground, a film that sounds SO much better than it came out. Based on a true story, Cage plays an Alaskan state trooper trying to close the murders of several young women. One escaped victim points the finger at Cusak’s character, a local restaurant owner named Robert Hanson who is so meticulous in his crimes that the best police can do is turn up circumstantial evidence. It’s an experience you finish and ponder, “Everything here should have added up to a really cool movie, but it missed by a few degrees and came out dull.”
But even that near-miss is better than The Prince, also starring Cusack, this time with Bruce Willis. It’s a crime thriller so needlessly complicated and simultaneously flat that I can’t summarize it mere weeks after I watched it. I doubt it was the script that lured the talent, and it points to a frustrating truth: these men want to work, the money exists to pay them to work, so why aren’t there more writers turning out better mid-level crime thrillers for them? The truth is that it’s far harder to write a good movie than anyone realizes.
I’ve encountered hundreds of writers who think they’ve got the next In the Line of Fire or Silence of the Lambs because they’ve reproduced the genre and the drive of those thrillers. In truth, they’ve really written I.T. or The Frozen Ground. With so many name actors in the twilight of their career now working in this arena, I’d love to see more of these guys making really interesting and bizarre misses like Army of One than tepid, forgettable work like The Prince. The further outside their comfort zone, the more interesting the movie is like to be. That at least gives some life to “Consider With Reservations.”