It feels like ages since we last saw Nicolas Cage give a performance that didn’t seem tailor-made for a hilarious YouTube compilation. At first the thriller Seeking Justice feels like it may be the movie to reintroduce us to the actor’s “normal” side: He’s playing an ordinary guy who, in the wake of his wife’s rape, gets unwittingly involved with a secretive organization dispensing extra-legal punishment. However, even though Cage isn’t mugging and screaming as much as he did in Ghost Rider or The Wicker Man, nothing will make an actor seem like he’s trying too hard quite like pairing him with the catatonic January Jones.
The story itself has potential. After his beautiful cellist wife (Jones) is sexually assaulted and beaten, mild-mannered New Orleans high-school English teacher Will (Cage) is preyed upon by dapper, mysterious, smooth-talking Simon (Guy Pearce), who offers to take vengeance on the rapist in exchange for a small favor to be named later. Will agrees; the rapist is immediately murdered. Six months later, Simon comes to collect: It turns out he’s part of a shadowy organization that essentially pays vengeance forward. Now it’s Will’s turn to avenge a crime committed against someone else and things get more sordid and twisty from there. As you might expect, Simon’s vigilantes turn out to be killing a lot more than just criminals, and Will soon finds himself in a position familiar to many protagonists of modern conspiracy thrillers: being chased by menacing bald people.
To be fair, when the story is moving, it’s okay. There are a couple of effective set pieces, including a highway chase that becomes a downright surreal and chaotic dance between cars, trucks, and humans. Less outrageous, more suspenseful elements are also handled deftly. An underrated journeyman, director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, The Bank Job, Thirteen Days) has always understood the way power manifests itself in the world: Here he deploys a slow drip of menace that gradually reveals the greater, more elaborate conspiracy at work, without going too far into the weeds of backstory. There’s also some creative use of location: The un-touristic New Orleans of Seeking Justice has a lived-in quality, from its newspaper offices to its concert halls to its monster-truck rallies, with nary a swamp or voodoo parlor in sight.
The problem is that Cage can’t seem to convincingly play normal anymore. (Could he ever?) Even as a straight man, every gesture of his seems to be a bit too much. His eyes bulge out a little too wide, his teeth clench a little too tightly, his lines come out of his mouth a little too loud. But let’s be generous: He was never going to be Cary Grant in North by Northwest. This performance might have worked — these are, after all, big emotions at play and one could see Seeking Justice succeeding at a heightened, more melodramatic level — except that Cage has been paired with the virtually immobile January Jones, who as usual gives the distinct impression that she does not want to be here. The disequilibrium between them is catastrophic, especially since so much of the story hinges on their chemistry. (Simon’s go-to method of convincing Will to do anything appears to be to threaten the wife.) When the film intercuts between them, it borders on the parodic: Her awkward stiffness is a rebuke to his overacting, and vice versa. As a result, Seeking Justice winds up being a cluster of decent scenes seeking — and failing — to find a reason to exist.