Last year I had written an article on film director Steven C Miller and how his films had a noticeable rise in quality from the usual DTV fare. At the time his latest film had just been released. Marauders (2016) didn’t exactly open to rave reviews but for me proved that Miller was only getting better, with the film being his most professional looking and also his most ambitious.
Perhaps Miller took some of Marauders reviews to heart, with a lot of reviewers, myself included, thinking that he was perhaps being too ambitious. With his latest film, Arsenal (2017), he has went back to basics, making a small scale thriller, that although not perhaps as enjoyable as some of his recent efforts is still a great thriller with some shocking violence.
The film’s plot focuses on the life of JP (Adrian Grenier) and his older brother Mikey (Johnathon Schaech). Starting with when the main characters are in their teens, the film shows the bond the two of them have had since childhood and how they look out for each other. This brief segment at the start of the film is also the most visually impressive of the film with Miller’s use of colour a standout, being somewhat reminiscent his work on the earlier Silent Night (2012). The level of violence in Arsenal certainly compares with that film.
This part of the film also introduces us to violent gangster Eddie KIng, played by an unhinged Nicolas Cage. He is introduced to the audience violently torturing a person with a baseball bat which Mikey ends up witnessing. Mikey agrees to keep quiet and ends up working for the crazed mobster. From there the film fast forwards 23 years, with JP now a semi successful business man, and Mikey being somewhat of a burnout. Although the two brothers are still close, it is clear that Mikey has went down a difficult path.
Through the introduction of the two brothers close friend Sal, played by a subdued John Cusack, we learn that Mikey has a bag of cocaine that he is looking to sell. Mikey proceeds to get robbed of the cocaine, with things escalating from there, with him ending up kidnapped by King. It is now up to his brother, with some help from Sal to rescue him.
Once again Miller doesn’t disappoint behind the camera, with the film looking great. Although sometimes it is evident that the film is a cheaper production, he still does great work with what he has got.
Miller works well with director of photography Brandon Cox who he had also worked with on Extraction and Marauders. Cox has also worked on a number of other Emmet/Furla/Oasis films such as Heist (2015), Precious Cargo (2016) and the upcoming First Kill (2017), which will see him once again working with Steven C Miller and Bruce Willis. Cox work in Arsenal is generally good with only some over saturated shots being a slight disappointment.
Cox isn’t the only behind the scenes to be carried over from Millers previous work, with editor Vincent Tabaillon once again giving the film a good pace just like he has previously for Miller on Extraction (2015) and Marauders.
Due to the smaller scale of the film, there isn’t as much action as expected with only one small scale car chase and an excellently done shootout at the finale. Considering the title of the film is Arsenal, you would be forgiven in expecting more firepower in the film. Perhaps the producers didn’t actually know what an arsenal was. Miller has made it clear that the title change from the original Southern Fury was not his idea, and he doesn’t seem particularly fond of the title that was chosen.
The level of violence goes some way in making up for the lack of action, with there being a number of gruesome torture scenes and murders throughout, the most memorable of these involving Nicolas Cage and his real life brother Christopher Coppola. Unlike the other movies Miller made for Emmet/Furla/Oasis films, the violence shown in Arsenal is closer in spirit to Miller’s earlier horror films.
This is the second film in a row that lead actor Adrian Grenier has worked on with Miller. He is slightly better in his role here than he was in Marauders, but still seems out of his depth playing a supposed tough guy. Luckily like Marauders, he is backed up by a strong supporting cast that help in taking the focus of Grenier.
Faring much better is Johnathon Schaech as Mikey. Schaech was one of the best things about Marauders, and it’s good to see him getting pushed up to co-lead status. Unlike Grenier Schaech is totally convincing as a tough guy, with him looking as if he hit the gym before filming started. Schaech is totally convincing playing an ex soldier and probably should have been the main star of the film, although he does get a good amount of screen time. Schaech has been working regularly in television and the DTV market, with various results. It may be a bit late in his career but hopefully Arsenal leads to more substantial roles for Schaech, and hopefully Miller also keeps him in mind for any future projects.
Adding a bit of star power to the film, John Cusack shows up as Gus, a slightly corrupt police man who helps out JP and Mikey through the film. This isn’t exactly one of Cusack’s best roles, with his screen time being relatively short. Wearing his DTV uniform of black baseball hat and shades, Cusack is still decent in the role and at least doesn’t seem as bored as Bruce Willis has in his DTV efforts. He is certainly better here than some of his other DTV movies, such as Brian Trenchard Smith’s Drive Hard (2014) and Reclaim (2014). Looking behind the scenes it would seem that Cusack and Miller got along quite well so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Cusack showed up in future Miller features.
Of the main cast, Nicolas Cage is definitely the most memorable, and Cage could never be accused of phoning in a performance. He is on full on Cage mode here with him surprisingly having a considerable amount of screen time compared to Cusack. His character of Eddie King is crazily over the top with a ridiculous wig; comedy moustache and prosthetic nose making him stand out from other characters Cage has played recently. Looking like a mixture of his character from Deadfall (1993) and Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, Cage looks ridiculous, which just adds to the overall crazy vibe his character gives off.
Recently it has been a shame to see Cage appear in some bottom of the barrel efforts like Left Behind (2014) and USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016), although he is still good in both of them. A film like Arsenal isn’t going to change things a great deal for Cage but along with his other recent films like Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog (2016) and the underrated Army of One (2016)he is definitely one the right track.
As well as the main cast also look out for Lydia Hull who also made an appearance in Millers Extraction. She doesn’t get much of a role, playing the wife to Grenier’s character. The world of Arsenal doesn’t really have much place for women, with them mainly being there to be put in jeopardy.
As mentioned earlier, Arsenal is produced by Emmet/Furla/Oasis films who specialise in low to medium fare such as Arsenal. Some critics complain about the quality of their output, which is understandable but forget that they have still managed to produce some quality big screen films such as 2 Guns (2013) and Lone Survivor (2013). They also give their audience a chance to see smaller scale action movies when cinemas are over populated with super hero movies and city wide destruction.
The writing in Arsenal can be overly serious, with some generic lines, but it gets the job done and gives certain actors in the film a chance to chew the scenery (looking at Nicolas Cage here, although I’m not sure how much of his performance is in the actual script). There are the usual DTV style scenes with someone being threatened solely to give the hero a chance to prove he’s a badass, but writer Jason Mosberg can be forgiven seeing as this is his first screen writing credit.
Arsenal is another step in the right direction for director Miller and certainly doesn’t deserve some of the bad reviews that it has been getting. My main issue with critics is that as soon as they realise that the film they are watching is DTV they seem to make up their minds on the quality of the film or seem embarrassed to give the film a good review in case their fellow critics laugh at them. In the last year a number of my favourite films, such as Blood Father (2016) and The Hollow Point (2016) were released to VOD. This however did not impinge on the overall quality of the films.