I’m a big fan of Nicolas Cage, believe it or not. He’s a pretty great actor in the right role, and a hilariously over-the-top one when playing the wrong character. He is very expressive, knows how to use his body and mannerisms —even now that he’s developing a beer gut and losing his hair—, and is a master at playing men on the verge of collapse. He might not be the best at choosing roles (especially since he filed for bankruptcy), but his presence usually guarantees that a movie will, at least, be mildly entertaining.
That might just be the case of “Outcast”, an epic that pairs him with my other favourite “bad” actor, Hayden Christensen. Mind you, most people know Christensen from the “Star Wars” prequels, but in the past, he’s demonstrated his acting chops in fine films such as “Shattered Glass” (hands down, my favourite role of his) or “Life as a house”. He wasn’t the best choice for playing a young Anakin Skywalker because he looks a little too vulnerable; his eyes are too dreamy and his expressions of anger too child-like, almost like he’s about to have a temper tantrum. Not everything you’d expect from a future Sith Lord, to be honest.
Now, he might not be the best choice for playing a depressed ex-crusader looking for redemption, yet here we are. If there’s something really disappointing about “Outcast”, is that it doesn’t have enough Nic Cage, and that even though it tries to give us a Christensen playing against type (the kind of risk that can pay its dividends, if one is lucky), he doesn’t seems to be doing such a good job at it. “Outcast” is the kind of action film that sounds good on paper —an epic and bloody tale starring Anakin Skywalker and Nic Cage in “Tommy Wiseau mode”!— but that doesn’t really deliver the goods.
Christensen plays Jacob, a crusader who used to kill people in the name of God, accompanied by his mentor —the Obi-Wan Kenobi to his Anakin Skywalker, if you will—, Gallain, played by Nic Cage with what seems to be a vaguely British accent. After seeing so much death and being convinced by Gallain that their quest has lost all its meaning, he retires. Next time we see him, he has fled to China, and as luck would have it, encounters a fleeing prince named Zhao (Bill Su Jiahang) and his big sister, Lian (Yifei Liu). He saves them from a group of bloodthirsty soldiers, and they explain that the little one is the heir of the throne, and a target for assassination by his power-hungry older brother, Shing (Andy On).
Begging him for his help, Zhao and Lian escape the cantina where they initially encountered Jacob, and eventually, the latter accepts their plead. Addicted to opium and war-weary, Jacob must overcome his own personal demons and seek the assistance of a mythical outlaw known only as The White Ghost (I bet you already know who plays him). Together, they must save Zhao and ensure that the kingdom remains safe in the hands of its new king.
“Outcast” is yet another “White Saviour” movie. You know, films like “Dances with Wolves”, “The Last Samurai” and even “Avatar”, in which the locals of a certain country or world —usually a non-Western or non-caucasian one— are saved by a white guy or gal. In this case, we have a couple of “British” warriors who seem to be infinitely more capable and noble that the Chinese locals —something that feels a little off, even considering that “Outcast” is a Chinese co-production. One would assume the producers would ensure their own country ends up looking good in their movie, but I guess money was more important to them (the movie was a financial flop, by the way).
In any case, even if you take the “White Saviour” element out of the equation, “Outcast” is simply not a very good blockbuster. Mind you, it’s not a boring experience, but it does feel empty and all too simplistic. I got frequently distracted while watching it, even missing a couple of important story beats without getting lost or confused. This is due to the fact that the script is terribly predictable; if you’ve seen any other “epic” picture, you’ll be able to guess the basic story contortions from the get-go. I don’t want to spoil them in this review, but even if I did, I can pretty much guarantee they wouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Even as an action movie, it’s not very compelling. Every battle is over-edited and relies too much on shaky cam, rendering them confusing and even frustrating. I bet Christensen did a pretty good job with his fighting —I mean, he gained a lot of experience with his lightsaber battles— but you wouldn’t know it by watching “Outcast”. In any case, the possibly out-of-shape Cage does gain a little by director Nick Powell’s style; since most action sequences are pretty much impossible to follow, one never notices the flip-flopping between Cage and his stunt double. Good for him.
At least, unlike many other international co-productions and indie “epics”, “Outcast” doesn’t look cheap. Cinematography can be quite beautiful from time to time —especially during the calmer scenes, when the editor doesn’t seem to be cutting and chopping like Edward Scissorhands—, and production design is on point. Everything looks grimy and gritty and used, like one would expect from a film set during the Crusades. Yes, Christensen’s hairdo looks a little too modern, and Cage’s wig is the worst thing he has ever sported since “Bangkok Dangerous”, but apart from their respective looks, “Outcast” doesn’t do a bad job at transporting us to its time and place.
If, like me, you decide to watch “Outcast” because of Cage, prepare to be disappointed. He appears during the film’s admittedly compelling prologue —looking a little younger and more composed than expected—, but then disappears for the better part of an hour, only to return for the final thirty minutes. It’s not a meaty role, and he stands out like a sore thumb, especially since he gives a hilariously over-the-top performance that contrasts terribly with the rest of the cast. And speaking of the rest of the cast: Christensen looks frankly bored as Jacob, and his “British” accent is hit-or-miss; Yifei Liu plays a disappointingly bland damsel-in-distress in the form of Lian, and Andy On is suitably evil as Shing. I’ve seen better bad guys in other pictures of this sort… but I’ve seen worse too.
“Outcast” could certainly have been a better vehicle for an unleashed, energetic Cage, but since Powell and his team decide to dedicate most of the runtime to Christensen, what we end up with is a lifeless, slightly-entertaining-yet-ultimately-disappointing action “epic”. The battle scenes are dreadfully edited and poorly shot (dutch angles galore!), performances vary from the bland to the hilariously exaggerated, and the plot is frustratingly simple, even if you choose to watch the picture with your brain turned off. “Outcast” is the kind of film that Cage has starred in all too frequently, and that wastes his (still) considerable talents in a very infuriating manner —I guess I’ll have to wait for the home release of “Mandy” to finally enjoy Cage in all of his glory.