With an impending election on the American horizon, it seems fitting for a few political dramas/thrillers/think pieces to start finding their way into cinemas. Everyone seems to have their own (correct) opinion in regards to political action these days, as social media and journalistic “investigation” only strengthen everyone’s singular voice. But with so many other poignant political assessments already logged in Hollywood’s catalog, it’s hard to find much weight in the issues that Austin Stark’s The Runner raises. It’s an oil-spill-gone-worse scenario that’s more about a struggling politician than White House corruption itself, led by a tormented Nicolas Cage in one of his better roles of the last few years (sans Kick-Ass, Joe, and of course, Drive Angry). Yet, by the film’s conclusion, no new ground finds itself covered.
Nicolas Cage plays Colin Price, a Louisiana politician who gains notoriety after his passionate speech about recovery efforts in the wake of BP’s 2010 oil spill. He becomes an overnight sensation, with thoughts of running for Senate, but campaigning quickly derails after a sexual scandal hits the press just as his streets seem to be paved with gold. Spiraling out of control, Price is forced to face his demons head-on while charting a course for future political endeavors. If he lays his head low enough and learns a little from his ex-politician father, Rayne (Peter Fonda), he just might have a chance of reuniting with his estranged wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen) for another strategic Senate run. If not, then he’ll be buried and forgotten for one stupid mistake.
I know what you’re thinking – Nicolas Cage starring in yet another barely marketed limited release. Chalk up another loss for America’s favorite castle-owning lunatic (does he still own that thing?), and brush it under the rug like Left Behind, Rage, Outcast, and all the rest. But while The Runner will certainly join that continually growing pile of underwhelming junk, it certainly isn’t Cage’s fault. He does the best with what he’s given, and while Colin Price isn’t exactly on Terence McDonagh’s level of debauchery (Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans), Cage channels an inner power that balances both sleaziness and sincerity with a deplorable likability.
In essence, Colin Price is a rather generic politician. He speaks with authority, surrounds himself with immensely talented campaign associates, holds a positive public image, and knows how the play the game. He understands when to strike while the iron is hot. Yet, on the other side of the spectrum, he’s also an adulterer with secrets being held from the public. Nothing about this story is new (Anthony “Carlos Danger” Weiner ), but Cage fares well as a “runner” who reveals an actual want to serve society. Despite the cheerleader coaches, whiskey binges, and occasional hookers, Cage is still able to strike a good-natured depth in Price that makes us root for his re-election (something those no-good press journalists obviously spin against him).
Referencing The Runner as a motif, it’s all about moving forward. You don’t backtrack when you’re running (unless you’re one of those crazy cross-fit crazies). In the beginning of the film we see Price going for a Washington D.C. jog, and right before the credits roll, we see price going for another Washington D.C. jog. He repeatedly stresses the importance of pushing onward, whether it be an eventual acceptance back into public graces or regaining his wife’s trust, and the message works well in reminding us that life’s journey is going to have some speed bumps along the way (yours just might not involve a 27-year-old mistress).
Looking past this veil of determination, The Runner is exactly the generic beast that Nicolas Cage is fighting against. After the early climax of Colin’s inappropriate encounter, Stark struggles to make us care about Colin Price’s hopeful return to politics. It’s astutely shot and technologically savvy, but that doesn’t mean we automatically care about Price’s dull can-kicking act while waiting for his name to be cleared. Is he a humble, good man? Is he the bastard media outlets make him out to be? Eh, he’s just another wayward politician dealing with a serious case of first world problems that we never find a serious connection to. And given Cage’s attempt to make something more out of these weightless building blocks, it’s a damn shame to see.
While The Runner is just another mundane campaign trailblazer, it does confirm one comforting fact – Nicolas Cage still has some gas left in the tank. Don’t get me wrong. When he’s bad, it’s pretty damn hard to watch. But because Cage is almost able to save The Runner completely on his own – despite the help of Peter Fonda, Connie Nielsen, and Sarah Paulson – we’re able to walk away with a glimmer of hope for future Nic Cage features. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing we can remain stoked about once Stark’s character dissection comes to an end, but hey, at least this new contender isn’t “CRAZY NICOLAS CAGE!” bad.
The Runner is bland, generic, and (surprisingly) ALMOST saved by a seriously invested Nicolas Cage.