It’s a new week, and nestled in another dumpster-load of content destined for the garbage pile that is the growing video-on-demand market comes Stephen C. Miller’s Southern action thriller Arsenal. The first of two movies Miller has due for release in 2017, which incidentally will be his fifth since 2015 (in case you needed an idea of the patient love and care the director brings to his projects), Arsenal is incoherent, thin on ideas original or otherwise and, despite its brisk 92-minute running time, a curious slog. Even by the now shockingly low standards of Nicolas Cage, lo-rent crap extraordinaire, Arsenal is bad – a product of totally incompetent filmmaking that will, as you drift, have you pondering how the money it cost to make could have better served humanity.
Biloxi, Mississippi provides Arsenal‘s setting, the location adding an unavoidably muggy atmosphere that’s perfect for the pulpy material but entirely at odds with the dour tone the director brings. He doesn’t appear to realize it, either, approaching scenes as he often does with the utmost seriousness. But the story Miller has on his hands is indeed pulp, lifted from a thousand similar tales before it.
Adrian Grenier plays JP, a family man who’s risen from ill beginnings to make a success of himself as head of his own business, while Johnathan Schaech is his older brother Mikey, a deadbeat dad with an ex-wife, a nose for bad drug deals and an unfortunate connection to Nicolas Cage’s gonzo crime boss Eddie King. It’s the unpredictable King who sets the story in motion, kidnapping Mikey in an attempt to extort JP for $350,000 – only JP, aided by detective friend Sal (John Cusack), turns out to be less of an easy pushover than King bargained.
For the likes of Grenier, whose lead character in Entourage remained unknowable after eight seasons and a movie, and Schaech, who here comes across like a Joe Manganiello clone minus the charisma, video-on-demand is a more than appropriate home. The same cannot be said for Arsenal‘s two headline players, a pair of major screen stars of the 80s and 90s now tragically lost in a world of DTV fare. Everyone knows Nicolas Cage has made himself at home here after years of paycheck gigs, but less frequently discussed is the fact that John Cusack, who just last year gave one of the best performances of his life in Love & Mercy, has lately become a DTV mainstay too. Together they make Arsenal a little more watchable, but there’s always the nagging thought that neither truly belongs.
Both Cusack and Cage appear to have been airdropped in from different movies – Cusack from some gritty indie drama, Cage seemingly from a cartoon – to class up the affair, but neither treats Arsenal with the same kind of reverence that their director apparently does. Cusack, playing it quietly world-weary, seems mildly embarrassed to be involved, while Cage gives the kind of performance that awed directors let Brando give at the end of his career: in a fake wig, over-sized sunglasses and prosthetic nose (Eddie King looks more like a Guess Who? character than a real person), Cage is completely OTT in a way that appears to be mocking material he knows is beneath him. It’s a gloriously atrocious performance only he can get away with, mostly because we presume he’s as ever in on the joke.
Otherwise, Arsenal is full of unintentional hilarity, as everyone outside of Cage acts like they’re playing in something worthy. You get Schaech brooding intensely and Grenier delivering lines like “get out of here you fucking junkie!” with all the sincerity he can muster. Miller can’t shoulder all the blame for the film’s laughable woefulness; screenwriter Jason Mosberg has written a familiar script about an average guy entering the underworld that’s devoid of intrigue, and wherein characters are never established for us to care about them in the first place. Even Cage and Christopher Coppola – real-life brothers here playing rival gangster siblings in a couple of totally superfluous scenes – seem like strangers, uncertain of who they’re supposed to be playing or what their characters’ shared history is.
Shot with lurid color in the more swampy, dilapidated areas of Biloxi by cinematographer Brandon Cox, the film isn’t uninteresting to look at, though frustratingly for an action thriller Arsenal doesn’t deliver on the set-pieces. Miller’s infantile obsession with bloody slo-mo violence is the only thing that marks out the generic action visually, though the hyper-stylized Dredd-style splatter makes little sense in a movie as ostensibly down-to-earth as this one. It’s just another random flourish in a film that doesn’t seem to have been made with much prior thought at all.
Even by Nicolas Cage's now shockingly low standards, Arsenal is bad. The actor gives the kind of performance that awed directors let Brando give at the end of his career: one that's completely OTT, in a way that appears to be mocking material he knows is beneath him.