There’s something a little charming about these multinational film productions that have become du jour for the straight-to-video market. They’re thrown together like cinematic madlibs, built on a shaky foundation of waning star power and cross-genre experimentation. 2014’s Outcast is a unique entry into this phenomenon. It never saw theatrical release here in the States, but it’s not quite the B-level disaster it appears to be from the marketing materials. The key ingredients tossed in the blender here are 1) The Crusades, 2) martial arts and 3) two name recognition actors whose very screen presence begs guffaws.

Hayden Christensen plays Jacob, a former Crusader hiding out in China. He spends his time addled on opium, trying like hell to forget a life of killing and the ghosts he’s left in his wake. Jacob stumbles into a familial conflict that feels like another movie entirely. Lian (Liu Yifei) and her younger brother, the prince Mei (Ji Ke Jun Yi), are on the run from their older brother Shing (Andy On) who has framed them for the murder of their father. Jacob, first through circumstance and then through the hope for redemption, protects the fugitive siblings through a series of harrowing chases.

There’s a feudal war movie vibe to the film’s look and feel, but it functions like a Western in the east, with a self-loathing outlaw driven into bloody hijinks by his irksome moral compass. Christensen plays Jacob with a shade more subtlety than his Anakin Skywalker. That perpetual pout remains glued to his matinee idol visage, but the rest of his still boyish face has furrowed like a crinkled road map. The endless jokes about the prequels have obscured the fact that Christensen is a talented performer, although one with a very narrow range of ability.

His skills are put to good use giving life to Jacob, a sinewy manifestation of duty and violence masquerading as a person. Jacob is a worn out, blunt instrument. His sharpness dulled from years of overuse. He’s a violent man nostalgic for a time when his unique temperament could be put to use, any use at all. Christensen is able to do solid work with his facial expressions and the physicality necessary for the film’s many sword fighting set pieces, but he still struggles with delivering dialogue in a natural manner. He’s aided here by minor flashes of poetry in the script but still strains for credulity. It’s adorable how cringe-worthy he sounds, even at his best.

Shing represents a kindred, if oppositional spirit to Jacob. After years of waging his father’s wars as a diligent soldier, he comes home to find his baby brother is to be made king. Shing slaughters his old man for forcing him to accept a horrible truth. In the world of peace earned by the horrors of battle, men built for war find no solace. As the life leaves the king’s eyes, he promises to see Shing in the afterlife. Shing responds, “Heaven is closed to me because of all the things I’ve done for you.” He detests his younger brother for being the face of a new world he doesn’t belong in.

Jacob sees in Mei the kind of hope and potential a warrior’s life has long since sapped from his spirit. To protect this future king, he and a lot of other men risk their lives, all in pursuit of a better tomorrow where men like them aren’t a necessity. It’s a surprisingly poignant ideal to hang an action movie on, but in its own quirky way, it really works. The run time isn’t too long and director Nick Powell, an experienced stunt coordinator, keeps the fight scenes brisk, executed well if not inventively. It hews too close to the melodramatic at times, but Outcast operates in a strange little sweet spot. It’s smart enough to not overstep its bounds, but dumb enough to waste a third of the film with Nicolas Cage.

Cage, a man who would show up for the opening of an envelope, gets top billing on the poster, but his role is ancillary at best. He plays Gallain, a fellow Crusader and Jacob’s former mentor. Gallain swore off his pupil after seeing him succumb to the darker urges of battle, but gives him another chance in this quest for absolution. He adds very little to the “good” part of this film, because he does little more than complicate the otherwise simple throughline. His presence, however, is very necessary for the guilty pleasure side of the proceedings. Movies in this vein need at least one batshit ridiculous turn from a down and out actor, and Cage deals out questionable choices with ease.

Yes, there’s a lot of emotive power in Outcast’s exploration of the ravages of war, but the real spectacle lies in Nicolas Cage perverting the King’s English, splitting the difference between his beautifully horrendous turn in Deadfall and an improv enthusiast’s first attempt at Shakespeare. His accent and delivery aren’t the same in any two scenes, but there’s an irascible otherness about Gallain, a former soldier reborn as a snake wearing smuggler shaman, that could only be brought to life by Cage.

Gallain lost an eye in the ensuing years since the war, but rather than opt for useful prosthetics to realize this malady, Nicolas Cage just squints really hard with one eye. He does this for the remainder of the film. Such is the charm of a movie principally made to pre-sell familiar American faces to foreign audiences first and forge powerful drama second.

  • One Night in Miami

    One Night in Miami’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it fee…
  • Revisit: W

    To take the time to highlight W’s status as a born-again Christian while largely ignoring …
  • Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Videodrome

    Videodrome’s brilliance comes from literalizing the unseen culture war waging at all times…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it fee…