In ‘Seeking Justice’ Nicolas Cage Mopes and Twitches

Centered on actor Nicolas Cage, who famously commits himself wholeheartedly to movies great and terrible, Seeking Justice should be more or less than middling.

Any movie that begins with Nicolas Cage in a glittery mask dancing with January Jones threatens to peak too early. Usually, the desired fever pitch of Nicolas Cage maximalism is reached only after he spends several scenes trying in vain to act like a normal person, as we anticipate new, bizarre heights of lunatic commitment from America’s favorite-by-default practitioner of the self-developed Nouveau Shamanic acting style. Seeking Justice‘s self-consciously odd start bodes ill: it looks like one more movie failing to scale the heroic heights of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Like that film, Drive Angry, and Trespass, Seeking Justice is set in Louisiana, with post-Katrina New Orleans providing some grit and color. As it leaves out the low-rent supernatural elements so striking in Bad Lieutenant and Drive Angry, this film, along with Trespass, suggests Cage has moved on to the low-rent urban thriller segment of his career.

Cage plays English teacher Will Gerard, whose wife Laura (January Jones, the go-to on-screen trophy wife of today’s aging male action star) is assaulted and raped on her way home from work. In the waiting room at the hospital, a devastated Will is approached by Simon (Guy Pearce), who comes bearing a Twilight Zone-ready proposal: if you agree to do an unspecified favor for us, we’ll find and punish the scumbag who did this. “Us” refers to a shadowy organization of concerned citizens, trying to fight crime where the police can’t. Will agrees; not long after, he’s presented with evidence that the rapist has met his just end and told that someone will be in touch about that favor.

It’s around this point that Will begins receiving instructions both ludicrously elaborate and mundane from Simon and his associates. He’s told to visit certain locations, watch certain people from a distance, and make check-in phone calls consisting of the words “The hungry rabbit jumps” (the film’s original title, as conspicuously wacky as Seeking Justice is meekly generic). At first, the activity seems borderline harmless, if creepy. Soon, though, Will’s tasks turn more peculiar and unpleasant, and he begins to wonder if he really can kill a pedophile and make it look like an accident, or whether the victim really is a pedophile, anyway.

But Simon and company won’t take “I don’t want to commit murder” for an answer. Yes, Simon belongs to a network so vast, clandestine, and powerful that it devotes its resources to harassing reluctant amateurs into murder (once revealed, the reasons for the organization’s persistence make a kind of loose, circular, thriller-logic kind of sense, if you don’t think about it too much). As pressure from the organization intensifies, a recovering Laura feels isolated from her husband, and so must put into the words the question that has plagued Cage for years: “Why are you acting so weird?”

Of course, she doesn’t ask this question as a human being. The movie doesn’t figure out how to use January Jones’ icy veneer for anything but a series of plot points: she’s the inciting incident, an obstacle when Will must keep his double life a secret, and finally, a damsel in distress — because even the knottiest of conspiracies must end with a damsel in distress and a perfunctory shoot-out.

Even with a checklist approach to the material, director Roger Donaldson, a decent craftsman, should be able to squeeze more juice out of Cage, Pearce, and the pulpy story. Donaldson has made effective thrillers on a wide spectrum from classy (Thirteen Days) to trashy (Species); his previous film, The Bank Job, sat smack in the comfortable middle. Seeking Justice is somewhere below, or off to the side: it’s competent, but neither particularly exciting nor particularly smart.

Many gritty revenge thrillers and paranoid conspiracy movies fancy themselves throwbacks to ’70s cinema, but Seeking Justice has more of a ’90s feel. It suggests Cage has circled back to the kind of low-budget Hollywood-ish programmers that he might have made in the late part of that decade had he not won an Oscar and scored action hits in quick succession.

Maybe he should have switched roles with his costar. Pearce is oily enough as the mysterious Simon, but Cage could have great fun as the outright villain, rather than moping and twitching as Will. As is, the movie feels like Cage signed on because he likes Louisiana, can use the money, and everyone else agreed to come to him. Centered on an actor who so famously commits himself wholeheartedly to movies great and terrible, Seeking Justice should be more or less than middling.

RATING 4 / 10