Steven C. Miller’s action thriller Arsenal is a lean mean genre machine. Now available in select theaters and on VOD, it’s the story of two brothers fighting their way out of a jam with a local gangster and elevated through the filmmakers’ execution. With editing that moves the story forward at a brisk pace and some strong performances, it keeps the viewer holding on as it blasts and bleeds itself towards its conclusion. It also distinguishes itself through an odd meta-cinematic move: the central villain is a seeming reprisal of a character named Eddie, played by Nicolas Cage back in 1993’s train-wreck of a film Deadfall. That film was written and directed by Cage’s real-life brother Christopher Coppola, who, just to add to the confusion, also plays Eddie King’s gangster brother from New Orleans in the new movie.
Arsenal is at its irrational heart a movie about brothers, fraternal relations are both the basis for the strength to persevere against obstacles and the cause of those obstacles. JP Lindell (Adrian Grenier) is a successful construction contractor who owes his survival during their rough childhood to his older brother Mikey (Johnathon Schaech). Now it’s Mikey in need of help: dishonorably discharged from the Marines, he’s looking for work with local crime boss Eddie King (Nicolas Cage), after he loses borrowed money in a bad cocaine deal. Soon after reuniting with Eddie, Mikey is kidnapped. When JP receives ransom demands, he’s both eager to help and wary of getting scammed. Helping him sort things out (perhaps) is a shady cop named Sal (John Cusack), a friend of both brothers.
We learn about JP and Mikey’s relationship during the first part of the movie which features Zachary Legendre and Kelton DuMont playing a young Mikey and a young JP. Mikey shields JP from harsh events in their young lives and supports the both of them through illegal jobs for Eddie, JP knows about Eddie and that his brother is involved in crime, but Mikey keeps the two apart. JP matures into a successful businessman, but Mikey just ends up damaged.
Schaech gives Mikey a wounded center layered over with rough edges. He exudes sadness when he attempts to connect with his estranged teenaged daughter in one scene and, in another scene with JP at a baseball field, we see both his love for JP and desire for his success. This scene showcases how the filmmakers use locations as symbolic of situations and representations of character. The site of key interactions between children and adults, the baseball field comes to represent the strength of the brothers’ bond. By the time Mikey is kidnapped in the present day, and the action and violence kick in, we have a clear understanding of their commitment to each other.
Cinematographer Brandon Cox captures the increasingly tense emotions and graphic violence in an oversaturated palette of sickly greens, glaring yellows, intense blues, and reds that bleed through and splatter across the screen in slow-moving arcs. The cross-processed look of these images makes the town of Biloxi, Mississippi seem sticky and hot, and the ramped-up reactions and poor decisions of the characters make more sense in this violent and overheated atmosphere.
Some of the most overheated scenes involve Nicolas Cage. It has become easy for viewers to mock many of his pointlessly unhinged performances, especially when they are featured in terrible films, but when he focuses his quirk and mania into a part through the right emotional circumstances, the effect is more than an amusing meltdown. Cage’s performance becomes meta in the connection between the two Eddies. In both Deadfall and Arsenal, Cage presents similar mannerisms and costumes and the same hair and fake nose. But Arsenal‘s Eddie is also more grounded and, I would argue, more convincing. He’s still crazy, but now sympathetic. Eddie resents his own brother and hates JP and Mikey’s commitment to each other; because his rage has a source, we can understand why his actions are over the top.
Our understanding is enhanced by Vincent Tabaillon and his team’s editing. In their hands, the two sets of brothers’ resentments and violence translate into exhilarating action sequences with shots that are long enough to follow and cuts quick enough to not let you think too long about what’s happening. A slow-motion effect is introduced in a clunky way about halfway through the film, but then deployed to greater effect throughout until the exciting finale.
For all the excitement, Arsenal does have problems, some formal and some narrative. One of the car chases is strangely static and begins a little too suddenly. The filmmakers resort to the tired device of a spiritual song — whether classical or a hymn — playing during a scene of graphic violence. And, while JP and Mikey most often communicate easily, in one scene, JP takes several beats too long to decipher a coded message that the attentive viewer will understand immediately.
Given these shortcomings, Arsenal is still a focused and entertaining kidnapping thriller about the rewards and dangers of brotherhood. As a small genre movie, it thrills and entertains, transcending the tropes it uses.