Monday, August 26, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: THE FROZEN GROUND (2013)

(US/Germany - 2013)

Written and directed by Scott Walker.  Cast: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, Radha Mitchell, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Dean Norris, Kevin Dunn, Olga Valentina, Michael McGrady, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Kurt Fuller, Brad William Henke, Katherine LaNasa, Ryan O'Nan, Matt Gerald, Gia Mantegna, Robert Forgit. (R, 105 mins)

Considering that the nearly $30 million-budgeted THE FROZEN GROUND has been banished to VOD Oblivion by Lionsgate, is only playing in a few theaters across the US, arrives in August 2013 sporting a 2011 copyright date, opens with the logos (among several others) for Emmett/Furla Films and Cheetah Vision, counts co-stars Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Olga Valentina (one other acting credit:  Fiddy's FREELANCERS) as two of 29 credited producers, and is headlined by Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, both of whom are a long way from CON AIR and not exactly riding a wave of recent box office success (though Cusack appears as Richard Nixon in LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER), it comes as a pleasant surprise that the film is a quite engrossing serial killer thriller/police procedural.  While it's nowhere near the level of ZODIAC, it's unexpectedly well-done for a film that has so many things working against it.  I could be wrong, but this may mark the first time the words "pleasant surprise," "quite engrossing," and "50 Cent" have appeared in the same review.

Based on a true story, THE FROZEN GROUND is set in Anchorage, AK in 1983.  Young prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is found raped, beaten, bloodied, and handcuffed after escaping from the mystery man who abducted and planned to kill her. While the local cops decide to blame the victim, Alaska state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Cage) is investigating the murder of a young woman found badly decomposed and partially eaten by animals in the frozen wilderness.  Sensing a link between the discovered body, several other missing women--mostly prostitutes--and Cindy, Halcombe starts looking into Anchorage records and becomes fixated on bakery owner and all-around likable guy Bob Hansen (Cusack) as a suspect.  Hansen fits the profile, has had several run-ins with the law in his younger days, and 12 years earlier, abducted and threatened a woman but only served a minimal jail sentence.  Halcombe's hunch is right:  Hansen is a serial killer of at least 17 victims over the years, and he's got another prostitute (Gia Mantegna) chained up in his basement while paying a brutal bouncer (Brad William Henke) to track down Cathy's pimp Clate (Fiddy, in a startling bit of against-type casting) and find out where she is. 

Making his feature debut, New Zealand writer/director Scott Walker does a commendable job getting restrained performances from Cage and Cusack, both of whom have displayed tendencies of taking things way over the top, though he does allow them to do some major jawing late in the film.  THE FROZEN GROUND suffers from some jumpy camera movements that are not exactly as irritating as "action scene shaky-cam" but Walker doesn't even keep the camera still during shots where people are just talking.  It's hardly the worst example of its type, but it does occasionally prove bothersome. Walker also can't avoid cop movie clichés:  Halcombe expressing reluctance to get involved in this complex case because he's "outta here in two weeks;" the spineless D.A. (Kurt Fuller) hemming and hawing about getting a search warrant for Hansen; Halcombe getting a pre-climax pep talk from his initially fed-up but suddenly supportive wife (Radha Mitchell); Halcombe's theories being dismissed by department brass.  There's a TV cop show quality to THE FROZEN GROUND (albeit with an abundance of F-bombs), which is probably why it will play better at home than in the theater, but as far as these things go, it's not bad.  Cusack is very good, and Cage, for the first time in a long time, shows up as "Serious Nicolas Cage" instead of the wide-eyed, in-on-the-joke self-parody he's become.  Ten years ago, this probably would've been the top movie at the box office.  Theatrical audiences seem to have turned their backs on former sure things Cage and Cusack.  It's only a matter of time before they're both doing police procedurals on CBS.

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