Nicolas Cage stars in Seeking Justice

Nicolas Cage in Seeking Justice (Anchor Bay)

Imagine a Nicolas Cage movie going straight to video. That seems wrong, doesn't it? Even Trespass got a week on the big screen. But Cage's new picture, Seeking Justice -- a conspiracy thriller co-starring January Jones and Guy Pearce, and directed by Roger Donaldson, who's made everything from Kevin Costner's No Way Out to Jason Statham's The Bank Job -- is bypassing the big screen after a spotty run overseas and burping out to disc.

I'm starting to worry about Nicolas Cage.

In a career that's seen him evolve from wild-card character actor (Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Wild at Heart) to Oscar-winning thespian (Leaving Las Vegas) to left-field action star (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off) and finally to all-purpose cult hero (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Drive Angry, Kick-Ass), the actor who's made his name on virtuoso delirium has started to make safe choices. And "safe" has never been a thing Nicolas Cage does well.

Since the revelation of his financial troubles a few years back -- when the gossip sites had a field day over the fact that the actor, who commanded $20 million US a picture back in his Jerry Bruckheimer days, owned not just a dozen homes but also two castles -- Cage has been working like a fiend, making movies to keep the revenue flowing while he tries to set things right. This is not in itself a bad thing -- work is work -- but the quality of that work is, well, not up to the actor's usual standards.

Trespass, the home-invasion thriller Cage made with Nicole Kidman, may have been a gala presentation at TIFF last year, but that didn't stop it from being, well, terrible. And now there's Seeking Justice, which isn't terrible, but isn't particularly good either. Set in New Orleans, it's a plodding running-man movie that casts Cage as Will Gerard, an unassuming high-school English teacher who finds himself mixed up with an underground organization that metes out vigilante justice to criminals the law can't touch.

Understandably compromised after his wife (January Jones, better than usual) is assaulted, Will is entirely fine with having the shadowy organization take out the serial rapist. But when the time comes to repay the favour, our hero tries to back away -- and ends up framed for murder, with half the police out to get him and the other half working with the mystery man (Pearce) pulling the city's strings.

It's a cross between The Star Chamber and Death Wish, except that those films had a sense of purpose and a commitment to going far enough with their concepts that the good guys got their hands dirty. Screenwriters Robert Tannen and Todd Hickey aren't willing to let Will carry the stain of ordering a man's murder -- they can't even let us feel conflicted about it for him -- so they neuter their own premise. And everything that follows from that decision dumbs down the movie, and keeps Cage from giving the performance he seems to want to give -- a tormented, exhausted hero who's also smart enough to understand how absurd his situation is.

There's just one moment where the movie and Cage sync up, and Seeking Justice feels like the wild ride it could have been all along. Having snuck into a New Orleans newspaper in search of a dead reporter's notes, Will finds himself answering a grammatical question shouted by a reporter at a distant desk. Without missing a beat, Will not only offers the answer but provides an example of the principle in question -- which, being far too courteous and thoughtful to be the response of a working journalist, leads the reporter to realize something's hinky.

Cage plays that moment beautifully, letting us see that Will knows he's getting himself into trouble, but can't stop himself from being a teacher; the character comes fully to life for the first and only time in the film. For the rest of Seeking Justice, he's just Nic Cage working off his debts.

Now, I'm not abandoning all hope for a Cage resurgence -- not when he's still committing to projects like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which at least had the potential to be as whacked-out as the first Ghost Rider picture, the one where Cage's character swaggered around like Elvis while swirling jellybeans in a martini glass. But I'm hoping he gets his finances in order sooner rather than later. We need a Cage who takes the time to build characters and bend movies to his will. Not just for his sake, but for the sake of all cinema, you know?

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com