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The Frantic-Dad Thriller Rage Needs More Help From Nicolas Cage

We think of Nicolas Cage nowadays as an actor who takes crazy parts in crazy movies, but once upon a time, this guy could act. Occasionally, he still can; this April’s Joe proved that. But gone, it seems, is the range of the man who once did Raising ArizonaLeaving Las VegasAdaptation, even Con Air. For all the supercut-friendly looniness of some of his recent parts, all too often the prevailing mood one gets from him is of a skin-deep glower — morose, but soulless. Which is a shame when you see a movie like Rage, which could have greatly benefited from the presence of that other, earlier, more engaged Nicolas Cage.

At first glance, Rage seems like it might be another cut-rate attempt to reestablish the actor as a middle-aged action star — to Liam Neesonize him, perhaps. Cage plays Paul Maguire, former gangster, now a respectable family man with a legit construction business. He’s a cool, loving dad: Yes, he smothers his teenage daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples — pay attention to her, she’s going to be in the new Jem & the Holograms movie) with SAT prep books, but he’s also organizing her birthday party at a local bar run by an old friend, and he might even let her unthreateningly hunky study buddy Mike (Max Fowler) ask her out.

It all comes crashing down when Caitlin goes missing after a mysterious home invasion, which occurs while Paul and his wife were out hobnobbing with politicians and millionaires at a fancy event. Paul (1) starts to take the law into his own hands, as all good fathers with sordid pasts must; and (2) begins to wonder if someone from his sordid past — quite possibly some Russians — might have come back for some belated retribution. All that does, indeed, sound like the makings of a pretty standard dad-on-the-prowl action flick, but Rage goes off in a slightly different, darker direction pretty quickly. To get into it, I’d have to spoil some of the plot, and even though you are never going to see this movie, I’ll hold off.

I will say this: Rage is less a kickass action movie and more high melodrama, all symbolic, thundering skies and stylized portent. When he first discovers that Caitlin has gone missing, Paul stands in his house looking down the corridor she must have tried to flee through. He imagines his girl, terrified and running away down that corridor, in slow-motion; the way the scene is cut, it’s as if she’s running away from him. Moments like these suggest director Paco Cabezas has a bit more on his mind than showing Cage punching people out or shooting them. For all the film’s requisite helpings of torture and garish violence, such little bits of dime-store cinematic poetry clearly betray its desire to rise out of the quick-buck anonymous-action gutter.

If only Cage were willing, or able, to help. Theoretically, this is one actor who should be able to rise to the occasion. In the past, he’s thrived on unpredictability: Cage may not always be easy on the eyes, but at his best, you can’t turn away from him, because you never really know what he’ll do next. But here, the actor plays it drab and dour. Maybe he can’t help it anymore. Given the waxy sheen of his face — from that ridiculous hair "element" atop his head to his weirdly immobile brow — he doesn’t quite seem capable of playing it any other way; not all his parts move the way they should. To match Rage’s cinematic flights of fancy, we should be seeing love, agony, vengeance, desperation, and self-hate playing out on that face. But the movie is imprisoned by its Cage’s stiffness. All he gives us is strained, robotic seriousness. I’m not sure he even gives us any rage.

Photo: Hannibal Pictures