Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Theaters, Special "Warning: In Case Of Release, This Theater Will Be Unmanned" Edition: LEFT BEHIND (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Vic Armstrong. Written by Paul Lalonde and John Patus. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, Nicky Whelan, Jordin Sparks, Lea Thompson, Gary Grubbs, Martin Klebba, Georgina Rawlings, Quinton Aaron, William Ragsdale, Alec Rayme, Lolo Jones, Lance E. Nichols, Han Soto, Stephanie Honore, Major Dodson. (PG-13, 110 mins)

Since the surprise success of THE OMEGA CODE back in 1999, the release of grass-roots, evangelical, faith-based titles has been a semi-regular occurrence in American multiplexes. Usually released with little or no secular fanfare, these titles are heavily promoted through Christian and right-wing media outlets and many congregations bus their members to the theater in what's essentially a big-screen sermon. The existence of these films, often referred to by secular smartasses as "faithsploitation" or "Christsploitation," isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Like any genre, they have a target audience and there's even been some mainstream crossover with the likes of SOUL SURFER (2011) and HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (2014). These films preach to the converted and their audiences are happy as long as they hear the message they came to hear. And from a working actor standpoint, they keep C-listers and past-their-prime character actors like Kevin Sorbo, John Schneider, Lee Majors, Eric Roberts, Dean Cain, Bruce Davison, Craig Sheffer, and James Remar employed. The problem with these films is that they're almost always cheap and shoddy-looking, almost as if the creative forces behind them know that it doesn't matter anyway because the message is the important thing. Costly religious films were made in the Cecil B. DeMille days of old but there's no need for that level of expense and craftsmanship in these kinds of modern faithsploitation offerings where you can just imagine the producers saying "Whatever, that's as good as it needs to be."  They know it won't matter. The movie gets released, the congregation says it's uplifting and has a positive message, and Kevin Sorbo's kids eat.

LEFT BEHIND (2000) was one of the films released in the wake of the mainstream success of THE OMEGA CODE. Based on the bestselling series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, it told of The Rapture, the event where those who truly believe in God leave Earth and ascend into Heaven, and the sinners Left Behind must combat the forces of darkness until they accept and believe. The Kirk Cameron-starring LEFT BEHIND was an apocalyptic look at the End Times and spawned two sequels, LEFT BEHIND II: TRIBULATION FORCE (2002), and LEFT BEHIND: WORLD AT WAR (2005).  From the moment it was announced, there was an incredulous sense that the reboot of LEFT BEHIND was some kind of elaborate prank. But as time went on and updates were routinely posted by internet news outlets, and as snippets of scenes and a trailer eventually made their way online, it became a painful reality that, yes, there's a new LEFT BEHIND. And somehow, it stars Academy Award winner and former actor Nicolas Cage.

Cage is airline pilot Capt. Rayford Steele (played by Brad Johnson in the original films), a fallen sinner who's cheating on his born-again, Bible-thumping wife Irene (Lea Thompson) with flight attendant Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan). He lies to his visiting-from-college daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) when he says he was just called in for a flight to London just as she gets home--he and Hattie had the trip planned for several weeks, even securing tickets to see U2 while they were there. Chloe heads to the family home to visit Irene and entirely too wholesome younger brother Raymie (Major Dodson), while Steele begins what should be a routine flight from JFK to Heathrow. Midway through the flight, several passengers, including all of the children, vanish into thin air, their clothes just lying in a pile where the person once was. At the same time, Chloe is at the mall with Raymie and Raymie disappears while she's hugging him, his clothing falling to the floor. Chloe frantically heads home and finds the shower running, with Irene's earrings and necklace lying over the drain. Chaos ensues on the ground and in the air, as Steele, after losing his co-pilot (FRIGHT NIGHT's William Ragsdale) and turning the plane around to head back to JFK, teams up with passenger and intrepid celebrity TV news reporter Cameron "Buck" Williams (Chad Michael Murray, in Cameron's role) to ensure the safety of the hysterical passengers after a mid-air collision with a pilotless jet causes a massive fuel leak.  As you might expect, it doesn't take long for the previously dismissive Steele to realize the error of his ways and accept God as his co-pilot.

Those who are Left Behind were left as such in order to believe and therefore earn their chance at salvation, but one thing that has no chance of salvation at this point is Cage's career. I expect to find people like Chad Michael Murray and William Ragsdale in a LEFT BEHIND movie. Even if he's only doing B-grade actioners that go straight to VOD, Cage has still been steadily employed even as his big-screen career has taken a nosedive. For an actor in a major career lull, the faithsploitation genre is usually a desperate last resort, something that only requires a couple of days' work and they get their check and move on to the next job. Cage is a willing participant in this and seems unaware of the amateur-night fiasco around him. Everything about LEFT BEHIND '14 screams "sub-Lifetime" in its standards of filmmaking, from the hilariously unconvincing job Baton Rouge does passing itself off as NYC to the intrusive score that vacillates between soaring, inspirational, would-be John Williams to sax-heavy smooth jazz at ludicrously inappropriate moments. It's the kind of film where complete strangers break out into intense theological debates at random moments as screenwriters Paul Lalonde and John Patus, who wrote the original LEFT BEHIND, aggressively shoehorn their talking points into the already-stilted dialogue.

Where LEFT BEHIND '14 differs from LEFT BEHIND '00 is that it drastically scales down its focus to Chloe and the chaos in her immediate vicinity (of course, people of various non-white ethnicities are seen looting plasma TVs and stealing money from left behind wallets in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture) and Steele and Williams dealing with the situation in the air. The Satan surrogate Nicolae Carpathia, played by Gordon Currie in the original films, isn't even seen here. Lalonde, Patus, and director Vic Armstrong instead whittle this LEFT BEHIND down to a sermonizing disaster movie (those who have read the book say this new version only covers approximately the first 40 pages), with a heroic Cage doing his best Robert Hays to get the plane down on the ground as it's running on fumes. Cage is surprisingly restrained--or half-asleep--throughout much of the film, only cranking up the Cageness when Steele has his Come to Jesus moment, looking at his ascended co-pilot's left-behind watch and seeing "John 3:16" engraved on it, then frantically perusing a departed flight attendant's day planner and having a blubbering breakdown when he sees "Bible Study" on the next day's date, with those two items being all he needs to conclude that his wife was right all along.

Veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator Armstrong worked on many 007 films between YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) and DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002), and served as the stunt double for George Lazenby in the Bond entry ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), Christopher Reeve in SUPERMAN (1978) and Harrison Ford in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). In recent years, the now 68-year-old Armstrong has handled second unit directing duties on major Hollywood films like I AM LEGEND (2007), THOR (2011), and JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) among many others. He's an odd choice to helm LEFT BEHIND, not just for the kind of movie it is or that it calls on none of his skills as a stunt expert but because it's just his second film as a director and the first since the 1993 Dolph Lundgren actioner ARMY OF ONE, aka JOSHUA TREE. Armstrong's effort here is undistinguished for the most part, with unconvincing CGI and greenscreen, and some oddly antiquated use of mattes and miniatures for a good chunk of the climactic crash landing. That sequence is almost charmingly Antonio Margheriti-esque in its dated execution, and as laughable as it looks, the miniatures may still be preferable to the whole thing being CGI'd as the airborne mayhem was in this year's earlier NON-STOP. So, if nothing else, while the shaky matte work is total bush league and the NYC skyline looks like Armstrong just projected the Troma intro onto a screen in front of the actors, LEFT BEHIND might make you a believer in the use of practical miniatures like they used to do.

True to disaster movie form, LEFT BEHIND '14's passengers are played by an odd grouping of actors beyond the inexplicable participation of Cage (I'd call this the STRIKE COMMANDO 2 of his career, but it's obviously too early to make that call) and BACK TO THE FUTURE's Thompson: you get 2007 AMERICAN IDOL winner Jordin Sparks, who also sings the closing credits song, blaming the event on her estranged pro quarterback husband; PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN's Martin Klebba as a surly little person with a huge chip on his shoulder; Olympic athlete and DANCING WITH THE STARS contestant Lolo Jones; folksy character actor Gary Grubbs; and Quinton Aaron, who you probably haven't thought of since THE BLIND SIDE. But the real story here is the once-unstoppable Nicolas Cage, a daring actor who blazed trails and lived on the edge but who's now teetered off beyond self-parody and past the point of no return with LEFT BEHIND. Earlier this year, JOE looked like it might revitalize his stagnant career until Lionsgate buried it. It's still a terrific film and it was his best performance in years, but hey, what's the point when he's already got this lined up? I get that actors need to work, but Cage can't possibly need the money badly enough to humiliate himself in an endeavor this beneath him. But maybe it's not beneath him. He's fully self-aware and has become his own punchline, a trained monkey in a carnival of "Nic Cage Freaks Out!" YouTube clips. At what point does someone close to him stage an intervention? This is a film that looks positively embarrassing on the big screen, from its terrible visual effects to the clunky dialogue forced on its actors. Even someone like Chad Michael Murray, the former ONE TREE HILL teen idol and current journeyman actor who very likely has no Oscars in his future, has to know this is garbage, and he's actually been in something as nonsensical as the cartographically-challenged THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA. The characters in LEFT BEHIND are nothing more than puppets mouthing the message, and it doesn't matter how awkwardly such proclamations are worked in as long as the audience hears them. Films like this have no subtlely or nuance, and while LEFT BEHIND '14 tones down the proselytizing a bit in order to appeal to the commercial audience they presume Cage will draw by turning it into AIRPORT '14: THE RAPTURE, that only heightens the cynicism of the whole thing. In short, there is no reason for this film to exist, and there's no excuse for Cage agreeing to be in it.

No comments:

Post a Comment