Irish-American Crime Movies: Rage (2014)

Nicolas Cage in "Rage": There should have been a lot more of this.

Nicolas Cage in “Rage”: There should have been a lot more of this.

Even among the tortuously degraded recent spate of Nicolas Cage movies, “Rage” is poorly regarded. It’s not quite “Left Behind,” the disastrous second adaptation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s apocalyptic novel, which came out the same year and scored an astonishing 2 percent approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. But it isn’t as highly regarded as the serial killer film “The Frozen Ground” from 2013, which scored 59 percent. It wasn’t even as well liked as 2012’s “Stolen,” a heist movie that bombed at the box office and only managed 16 percent approval. No, “Rage” scored 14 percent approval, with reviewers declaring the film to be “Tired, lazy, incongruous, shocking and hilarious in all the wrong places,” and “cheap, amateurish and so distasteful it borders on the vile.”

Cage does a little screaming in “Rage,” and, credit where it is due, it’s just as lunatic as you might hope for.
And what a shame. First of all, when Cage is matched with the right material, he’s still electric, and it still happens now and then. In 2013, he made a film about homelessness called “Joe,” and it was a solid film with a fine, heartfelt performance from Cage. Secondly, “Rage” should be the best name possible for a Nicolas Cage movie. The podcasters at “How Did This Get Made” have identified two distinct styles of acting from Nicolas Cage, which they have dubbed the “Nic tic” and the “Cage rage”; the former approach has Cage approach his material eccentrically and idiosyncratically, while the later has him just screaming, and he does both marvelously.

He does a little screaming in “Rage,” and, credit where it is due, it’s just as lunatic as you might hope for, such as a scene where he repeatedly bellows the word “rat” at a friend, drowning out the man’s protestations. But you would think he’d be a lot madder in the film. After all, the plot has Cage playing a retired Irish mobster in Mobile, Alabama, named Paul Maguire whose daughter is kidnapped and murdered.

Maguire presumes it is belated revenge for a crime from years earlier, in which he and two friends ripped off some Russian mobsters and murdered the bag man. So Maguire reunites with said cronies and go on a three-person crime spree, butchering every Russian mobster they find while trying to get answers. Maguire himself prefers knives, and he likes them obscenely big, so he spends a lot more time inelegantly stabbing people than screaming at them. Danny Glover is on hand, somewhat uselessly, as a cop who keeps trying to calm Maguire down. But Maguire doesn’t really need that much calming down — he seems mildly irritated most of the time, an incomprehensible acting choice given Cage’s proclivities. One can only assume he received some bad direction from director Paco Cabezas or he just got sick of the film and checked out.

This is not a film with much to say about the Irish mob, which didn’t really exist in Mobile, Alabama, anyway. Screenwriters Jim Agnew and Sean Keller may not have originally intended their story to take place in Mobile, but even if it had been set in a city where the story would make sense, it still relies heavily on cliches of organized crime as competing ethnic groups, with Russians filling the role that Italians used to fill in these sorts of stories. So we have an Irish crime boss, played by Swedish actor Peter Stormare with an accent that sounds exactly like a Swedish actor doing an Irish accent. Stormare is another actor notable for turning in eccentric film performances, and, again, he fails to do so here. The Russians are led by Pasha D. Lychnikoff, an actor who was born in Moscow, and the only thing I can really say about him is that he’s credibly Russian. They face off in a scene in a parking lot, and it plays out exactly the way it would in an episode of The A-Team: needlessly, stupidly, purposelessly.

There is a final shame to the film, and it is the film’s ending, which is better than it should be. I will spoil it now, because I don’t expect anybody will actually see the film based on my (or anybody’s review) of it. As it turns out, Maguire’s daughter wasn’t kidnapped. She was accidentally shot by one of her friends when they were drunkenly playing with some of Maguire’s guns, and, knowing his past, the friends made up the story about the kidnapping. It’s a good twist, if, as one critic pointed out, unearned.

But it communicates something that I haven’t seen dramatized this way before: The idea that criminals can’t really put their pasts behind them. It’s not just that Maguire immediately assumes his past has caught up with him and starts an unnecessary, brutal gang war. It’s that he literally kept mementos of it in his house, poorly hidden, for his daughter to discover and kill herself with. It’s the sort of pessimistic ending that a really great film could have done really well, and this film does somewhat competently. It’s an ending that should have been in a better film, featuring an actor who should have given a better performance in a story that should have been in a better location.

Instead, it all sort of fizzles, and that’s not what you want from an Irish mob movie. No, you want fireworks, you want top of the world ma, you want machine gunnings in the street, and, if it’s a Nicholas Cage movie called “Rage,” you want a lot more screaming.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.