Saturday, January 7, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: ARSENAL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Jason Mosberg. Cast: Adrian Grenier, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Johnathan Schaech, Lydia Hull, Mark McCullough, Tyler Jon Olson, Abbie Gayle, Christopher Coppola, Christopher Rob Bowen, Megan Leonard, C.J. LeBlanc. (R, 92 mins)

It's only the first weekend of 2017 and we've got the year's first of undoubtedly several straight-to-VOD thrillers with either Nicolas Cage or John Cusack--in this case, both. The CON AIR stars were last seen together in 2013's surprisingly good THE FROZEN GROUND but with ARSENAL, they're already blowing their New Year's resolutions to start appearing in better movies. Scripted by a debuting Jason Mosberg and directed by VOD mercenary Steven C. Miller (whose not-terrible 2016 Michael Mann knockoff MARAUDERS was the best-by-default entry in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis phones in his performance from his luxury hotel suite" series), ARSENAL's biggest problem is that it can't figure out what it wants to be. Set and shot in Biloxi, MS, with a special appearance by the Biloxi Shuckers minor league baseball team, ARSENAL opens in a such a somber and downbeat fashion with a focus on two teenage brothers in the early 1990s that it could almost pass for an early David Gordon Green indie drama. Older Mikey pushes little brother JP around but there's genuine love between them as they come from a broken home and have one another's back. 23 years later, they still live in the same town but a lot's changed: JP (ENTOURAGE's Adrian Grenier, who was in MARAUDERS and is looking like a new regular in these things) is married with a newborn daughter and owns a successful construction company, while Mikey (Johnathan Schaech, already a regular in these things) is a perpetual fuck-up who was booted out of the military, can't hold down a job, and has an ex-wife and a daughter who hate him. He's also a low-level criminal with tenuous ties to Eddie King (Cage), a coke-snorting crime lord who holds court in a skeezy titty bar on the outskirts of town. Mikey is such a loser that JP loaned him $10,000 to pay his back rent and get braces for his daughter, but instead Mikey spent it on a cocaine shipment that he planned to flip for double the price. Of course, other lowlifes knew he had the stash and jacked it from him, leaving him with nothing. Mikey needs money, and so does Eddie. He's in debt to some NYC mobsters who have sent his younger brother Buddy (Cage's brother Christopher Coppola) to collect. Eddie comes up with a half-assed plan to stage Mikey's kidnapping and shake JP down for a $350,000 ransom. Things obviously don't work out for anyone, starting with the viewer (I'd say "audience," but I don't wish to exaggerate).

ARSENAL's more serious side would work better if Grenier and Schaech were more engaging actors. But that seriousness is undermined by frequent instances of ludicrously over-the-top violence, including a cartoonishly splattery climax more fitting for the insane Paul Walker thriller RUNNING SCARED or the gloriously bonkers PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, with slo-mo bullets blowing up everything from skulls to ballsacks with wild abandon. Grenier and Schaech seem to be in a serious drama about the family ties that bind, while Cage is off in his own movie where he's inexplicably reprising his role in the barely-released 1993 campy pseudo-noir bomb DEADFALL, which he agreed to do as a favor to Christopher Coppola, who wrote and directed. Cage's performance--possibly his most gonzo in a career full of them and augmented by what appears to be a Tony Clifton-meets-Sonny Bono wig and mustache combo with a putty nose--is the only reason anyone remembers DEADFALL, a film that's barely watchable despite a cast that includes Michael Biehn, Charlie Sheen, James Coburn, Talia Shire, Micky Dolenz, Clarence Williams III, Angus Scrimm, and Peter Fonda. While Cage's Eddie was killed off midway through DEADFALL, he's clearly playing the same character here, right down to the wig, the stache, and the fake schnoz, which may go down as 2017's most obscure and self-indulgent inside joke.

In ARSENAL, Cage is here to do exactly what you expect him to do: shout, yell, scream, spaz out, and totally Cage it up as his putty nose perpetually seems on the verge of falling off. He's introduced shoving a steel pipe into a guy's mouth and driving it out the back of his skull with a baseball bat and he spends much of the second half of the film covered in blood after shooting and clawing his way out of a mob ambush. If ARSENAL went for this level of sustained lunacy for its entire run time, it might grow exhausting but it would at least be interesting for Nic Cage fans. No one cares about JP taking a stand against Eddie (telling his wife "Katrina didn't run us out and neither will Eddie King!") or shitbag Mikey's redemption. ARSENAL tries to have it both ways and succeeds at neither. It also fails to find a purpose for Cusack, sporting a doo-rag, a ball cap, shades, and his ubiquitous vape pen in a thoroughly superfluous supporting role as Sal, a shady undercover cop who's buddies with JP and Mikey and dispenses sage advice to JP about how to handle Eddie. Sal does nothing to advance the plot, and Cusack could've been completely eliminated with no effect at all on the movie. As usual for this sort of gig in the Cusackalypse Now canon, he looks haggard and sleep-deprived, like he just crawled out of a dumpster, exerting no effort to camouflage his utter lack of interest in the entire project. Cage is fully aware that this is shit as well, but he at least embraces the notion of self-parody and gives you what you came to see.

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