It’s said that if John Malkovich had passed on Being John Malkovich, the script would have been shelved – no second choice fit the concept well enough. That’s likely the case with this vehicle for the ever-busy Nicolas Cage – announcing ‘I’m back’ with a quick afterthought ‘not that I’ve been away’ – though it has quite a bit in common with similarly good-natured turns from William Shatner in Free Enterprise and Bruce Campbell in My Name is Bruce. The concept of a big movie star playing a lightly sent-up version of their public image, taking a few barbs at the same time, has been around since the silent era – and has often allowed folk whose pretensions, prickliness or eccentricities have become jokes to let themselves in on the gag and maybe unbend a bit. The approach ranges from Jerry Lewis depicting himself as a monster in The Bellboy (where he meets a Jerry Lewis character – a stratagem reprised by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero) to Peter Falk owning up to being an angel in Wings of Desire. The shelves also include Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD, David Hasselhoff in Killing Hasselhoff (the Hoff dies as himself in Piranha 3DD) and Keith Chegwin as a serial killer in Kill Keith (Merv Griffin got there first in The Man With 2 Brains).
The hook here is that Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) has a troubled relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen, daughter of Kate Beckinsale) because of his workaholism and eccentric movie interests (lecturing Addy on why Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a great film). His agent (Neil Patrick Harris – who played himself as a wild man in the Harold & Kumar movies) books him a million-dollar gig at a birthday party in Mallorca for uberfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), and an unpaid hotel bill and a lost movie role mean he has to accept it. While Nic and Javi have an unlikely creepy-funny-sweet bonding session, Nic is approached by the CIA (Tiffany Haddish) to spy on his host … whom they say is a big illegal arms dealer.
So, with dialogue footnotes to point it out, the genre switches from sitting-around-talking to action-adventure with one or two not-unanticipated revelations about whats actually going on in the Gutierrez Empire – with the kidnapped daughter of a Catalan politician as mcguffin – and Olivia and Addy flown in for a reconciliation that gets out of hand with guns and car chases. No one is going to say that Cage is miscast here, and he gamely takes jokes about some of his career choices – there’s a ‘not the bees!’ gag – but I appreciate the way this namechecks primo Cage Rage epics but doesn’t put down the serious, impressive work he’s put into some of the smaller films he’s done lately (Mandy, Mom & Dad, One Man Army, Pig). Considered as a latterday Cage film, it’s well above the level of Willy’s Wonderland but still relatively undemanding next to the movies where he really goes through the wringer (Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans).
Pascal is sweetly quizzical as an apparent nice guy who might still hold a glint of malice – and there’s a running joke about his number three favourite movie (Paddington 2 ‘it made me want to be a better man’) that feeds into the actual heart of the picture, which (as in Free Enterprise) involves the redemption of a fictional caricature of a real person.