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In which the word 'better' may be used, but only in a relative sense
on 8 January 2014
You've got to know your career's gone down the toilet when you release a film that hits all the checkmarks necessary to be viewed as acceptable, but nothing more, and this registers as one of the better films that you've made recently. Alas though, this is the situation that Nicolas Cage has found himself in. He doesn't have to make something extraordinarily groundbreaking. He doesn't even have to make something great, because whenever he finds himself involved in something that isn't terrible, it seems like a triumph, not just for him, but also for the audience. An audience who can breathe a sigh of relief that they are not about to sit through another "Cage dud". Another Next. Or another Knowing. Or another Ghost Rider. Or another Justice.
Or another Ghost Rider 2.
Whenever Cage works with director Jon Turteltaub, we seem to get perfect examples of this. Turteltaub is a serviceable commercially-orientated director, although he has a horrible habit of switching on directing autopilot. Previously, he and Cage made the National Treasure films together. Though I'm yet to see the second of those films, I remember quite enjoying the first one only to like it less upon a second viewing, something that I put down to repeated viewings lessening the relief of not having to sit through another of Cage's turgid excursions into ignominy. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a bit of a different story. It begins fairly well, with the relief setting in that it's not going to be too awful. As time passes though, things start to unravel and the positives only lie in the absence of true negatives.
Using that bit from Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice puts the 'based' in based on. Cage plays Balthazar Blake, one of Merlin's three protégées. In the battle against Merlin's arch nemesis Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige), Merlin and Blake are betrayed by their ally, Horvath (Alfred Molina). While Morgana manages to kill Merlin, the betrayal doesn't work out too well for Horvath as he finds himself locked inside a nesting doll. However, the only way to stop Morgana is for the other protégée, Veronica to absorb her into herself. With Morgana killing Veronica from inside, Balthazar is forced to place her in the doll with Horvath. He then embarks on a quest to find the Prime-Merlinian, a foretold individual who will take Merlin's place as the one man who can rid the world of Morgana. Cut to present day, where Jay Baruchel's path will cross with Balthazar's and his potential destiny as the Prime Merlinian is discovered. When he accidentally releases Horvath back into the world, this is a destiny that he must come to terms with fairly quickly. What, however, is this foretold saviour's name? Whom will the legends tell of as the successor to Merlin's name?
That would be Dave. I mean, really. They could have called him Mickey, won points from the "Based on" department and it would have still sounded a better wizard name than Dave. If only slightly better.
With that in mind, how, you may ask, does this tie in with the famous section from Fantasia? Well, there's a scene where various cleaning products come to life and Dave can't keep them in control. It lasts about five minutes. There's also a ten second shot of a blue wizard's hat with white stars on it, after the credits. I could go on, but I fear it may start to appear as though the filmmaker's were clutching at straws and, of course, this is not the case at all.
The film's biggest problem is that while it has it's concept and presents itself fairly confidently to begin with, it then realises that the ending is in sight and hasn't got much idea how to fill the time in between. Failing to realise this, it presents us with countless training scenes, interspersed with Dave getting into trouble, only for Balthazar to come and rescue him and a love story that practically defines trite. Instead of realising this and getting things over with quickly, it spreads out what should be a 90 minute film (at most) to nearer 2 hours. The jokes are few and will rarely conjure up (pun wasn't intended, but I'm sticking with it) little more than a wry chuckle and the big set pieces are either short and pointless or yawn-inducingly pedestrian fare.
The script also has a horrible habit of writing itself into a corner with no idea of how to get itself out of them. Horvath is set up as a true villain. His actions will result in the death of millions and he doesn't care, but the script presents situations where he has the upper hand and retreats with no real reason. He even abandons sure-fire opportunities to kill both Balthazar and Dave, abandoning these with just as little reason. There's no suggestions of a developing humanity in the character. It instead just feels like Lex Luthor trapping Superman in a Kryptonite mine-shaft, only to throw him some rope. Moments like these are what rewrites were designed for and they should have never passed the continuity tests.
So far, so "Cage dud", but the film's real advantage lies in it's decent cast. A cast who are all capable of raising up the material. I'm including Cage in that. The common misconception is that he's a bad actor. He's not. He's a fantastic actor who has made some absolutely horrible choices and repeatedly fails to learn from those choices. He sees an electric fence, touches it and then decides to do it again a few times, just in case he imagined the consequences. That's not to say he's never delivered a bad performance because he has. It's just that a bad film doesn't require bad performances. It's like pre-2010 Matthew McConaughey. His films before that were torturous, but he was never, by any stretch, a terrible actor and he's proving that now. I'd love Cage to have a similar career resurgence and do think he's capable of it, but the doubt grows ever-increasing. At least here though, he's perfectly watchable and even enjoyable, adopting the Castor Troy mentality of overdoing it, but doing so in a fairly fun way.
Elsewhere, Baruchel is continuing with his intelligent outcast routine, but, unlike many of his fellow Apatow graduates, he's avoided over-exposure, meaning that he can still be enjoyable. On the feminine side of things, the Bechdel test's calling out in cries of anguish. Bellucci suffers most, as she's got bugger all to do. Criminal under-utilisation grows ever apparent as the story of Bellucci's Hollywood career. Teresa Palmer, on the other hand, is someone who I'm hoping will be propelled to greater things as a result of Warm Bodies. There is nothing in her character or the "geek-guy likes cool-girl" romance to help her in being anything other than the bland love interest, making her feel about as important as the background props. Palmer, however, is easy to warm to. Able to rise above just appearing for her natural attributes, she makes herself instantly likeable and her performance does it's best to make her feel human, while the script's just concerned about making men fancy her.
Then, we have Alfred Molina who flat-out steals the film as it's chief villain. There's a bit of Loki about him, in that he gets all the good lines and the film's at it's best when he's in it. However, regardless of the advantageous position, Molina just oozes menacing charm and is one of those actors who never appears to consider himself above the film that he's in. He always feels like he's trying to deliver his best performance, be that through pulling out the acting chops, or trying to keep things fun. While he's been in some terrible films (Prince Of Persia, Abduction), but I struggle to name a film in which he's ever been anything less than decent and, most of the time, he's exceptionally good. He's also more than capable of being the film's sole villain, begging the question of why they didn't let him be that. Instead, we get Toby Kebbell as Drake Stone, superstar magician and chief henchman to Horvath. There's nothing wrong with Kebbell in the role and it's not that the film doesn't try to provide the character with some point. It's that the way they instil that point is entirely perfunctory and it's an angle that also leads to the slightly pathetic addition of a well-known historical figure from witchcraft. The angle that justifies these characters' existence could have easily been removed, taking the characters with it, allowing us to simply sit back and bask in Molina's wonderfully fun villainy.
There's also the anticlimax of the ending, living up to the rest of the film by being everything you've seen before and nothing more. There's no tension, because nothing has made you believe that the norm will be strayed from. Worst of all, it completely sidelines Molina. Whilst it's essential to pull the focus away from him slightly, there's no call for the literal casting off that the character receives and their attempts to make up for this in the sequel-baiting post-credits sequence don't help, because as well as a sequel to this not being a particularly appealing prospect, the film (while not a complete financial disaster) made nowhere near enough money for us to ever think that sequels going to arrive.
It's my first film where I'm struggling to decide on the score, as it's the sort of film that the term "middle of the road" was invented for. It's a 2.5 out of 5, but I vowed to never resort to .5 scores as, let's be honest, how do you really distinguish between a 4 and a 4.5? The question, therefore, is which side of 2.5 I go. If you look at this as a Nicolas Cage film, it's a 3 on the basis of the aforementioned relief. That, however, would be to base the film on only one of it's many elements, a precedent that would open up a whole new dangerous world in which Two Weeks Notice gets a perfect 5, because it's not as bad a Hugh Grant film as Nine Months. In addition, I also feel that if the film deserved 3, I wouldn't be debating it, in the same way that I would never hand out a perfect 5 if I wasn't sure. The most positive thing I can say about The Sorcerer's Apprentice is that it's not entirely devoid of merit. At the same time, it is entirely devoid of true brilliance, no matter how close Alfred Molina comes.
TWO out of five
Contains infrequent examples of Cage's worst work, but equally infrequent examples of his best work.
P.S. Or another Windtalkers.