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Nicholas Cage is certainly not wanting for work these days, appearing steadily in a string of films, including a number of indie projects that have met with a wide varying degree of success, many indulging in that particular brand of Cage-iness that has made him so both ridiculed and beloved. Now comes Vengeance: A Love Story, a title that oozes pulpy 90s-esque goodness, and delivers in kind, blending some very dark themes with some familiar tropes in a film that is undeniably entertaining if not underwhelming.
On the Fourth of July, after a late-nite lawn party, Teena Maguire (Anna Hutchison) and her twelve-year-old daughter Bethie (Tabitha Bateman) stroll home in the moonlight under the glimmer of a few stray fireworks still popping in the air. They decide to take a shortcut through a popular hotspot Teena frequented in high school. It’s a bad choice as they are met with a gang of thugs who violently, sexually assault Teena as Bethie watches in horror. First on the scene is Detective John Dromoor (Cage), who met Teena just previously and made a connection. He’s a widower and war vet and takes it upon himself to see justice made, especially after the gang hires slick, hard-knocking attorney Jay Kirkpatrick (Don Johnson), who seems able to clear the men.
Directed by Johnny Martin, from a screenplay by veteran television scribe John Mankiewicz, and based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Vengeance: A Love Story is in many ways a standard boilerplate crime thriller with good people caught in morally unbalanced dilemmas. While it portends to be about Cage, who had originally planned to direct, he is mostly absent for much of the story, putting the onus on the shoulders of Hutchison and Bateman, who struggle with recovery and social perceptions as Teena has a bit of reputation as a flirty type.
The films travels us through the aftermath as Teena’s mother (Deborah Kara Unger) shows up to take on the recuperative role and the case goes to trial. Here’s where the film loses its grip, one made very effective in the early stages as the characters are developed and the criminal circumstances are played out. In the courtroom, Johnson plays it up to distracting levels of arrogance and buffoonery while the defendants taunt and sneer as the judge placates himself to being clearly on the side of the popular lawyer. Meanwhile, Dromoor sits in silence watching with contempt. And so the plot is set in motion. Layer in Unger’s wildly snarky performance and the film funnels itself down an obvious path that unravels its good start.
That said, which is a lot, there is much that works, most especially in the performances of Hutchison and Bateman, who both do great work. Martin also puts together a number of tense moments, mostly in the terrific opening and several of the latter scenes where the film’s namesake comes into play, some on the very edges of Niagara Falls. Together with a nicely-nuanced score by Frederik Wiedmann, Vengeance hits the mark a few more times than expected.
Cage is tonally all over the place, though keeps a lid on the histrionics he’s so well-known for and is far more subdued, calculated and subversive throughout, even as the script doesn’t give him much to do beyond stare blankly. Playing into the dark hero clichés of a dozen others, he fits the bill well if not a little on point. Vengeance: A Love Story is a competently-made and acted film that undoubtedly could have been a lot worse, and ultimately doesn’t have much to say, but entertains nonetheless.
Movie description: Vengeance: A Love Story is a 2017 action thriller about a troubled cop who goes on a rampage against those who assaulted a young woman and her daughter.
Director(s): Johnny Martin
Actor(s): Nicolas Cage, Don Johnson, Deborah Kara Unger