Outcast (2014) Review

"Outcast" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Outcast" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Nick Powell
Writer: James Dormer
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Nicolas Cage, Liu Yifei, Ji Ke Jun Yi, Andy On, Wang Bozhao, Fernando Chien
Running Time: 99 min.

By Kyle Warner

When a successful Hollywood star decides to star in a Chinese production, I see it as an interesting career choice. Maybe the script drew them in, maybe it was the chance to work on a new sort of film set, maybe it’s a big paycheck, or maybe they’re simply trying to entertain and/or develop a fan base in Asia. When a struggling Hollywood star decides to star in a Chinese film, I can’t help but see it as an act of desperation. In Outcast we have two stars currently working through the dark days of their respective careers. Hayden Christensen hasn’t had a hit starring role since Jumper (which wasn’t exactly a hit) and Nicolas Cage will seemingly take any role that’s offered to him as long as he’s getting paid. Longtime stunt coordinator Nick Powell (War) makes his directorial debut on the film. Considering all of the above, the film is pretty much what you’d expect: you could say that one star is trying too hard, the other isn’t trying nearly hard enough, and the first-time director knows how to film the action but not much else.

Outcast is a historical action-adventure set in the East during the Crusades. We enter the film as knights Jacob (Christensen) and Gallain (Cage) are attacking a city in the Middle East. Gallain has seen too much war and begs his protégé to go East with him, but Jacob seems to get off on bloodshed, which forms a schism between the two old friends. The whole sequence reminded me a bit of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, but I was willing to think that was simply because there simply aren’t that many films made about the Crusades. I changed my mind about that as the film went on. Jump ahead three years and we find ourselves in China where a dying King has decided to pass his throne to his lovable younger son instead of his cruel warrior eldest son Shing (Andy On). Shing kills his father, says his pipsqueak brother did the deed, and sends soldiers after the kid. Because I guess if you’re going to look to Kingdom of Heaven for inspiration, you might as well watch Gladiator, too (there’s a moment in the final act that also bears a striking similarity to Gladiator).

In the three years since the opening, Christensen’s Jacob has gone in search of Gallain, ending up lost in China and addicted to opium. Luckily everyone in Asia speaks English so Jacob knows when to step in and save the rightful heir when he’s in danger. After that Jacob becomes a guardian of the outcast little brother, taking him to a far off land while Shing’s men close in from all around.

Nicolas Cage is so odd. I maintain that he can be one of our best actors when he’s working with a good script and a talented director. In Outcast, he’s given a poorly written character and a director that doesn’t seem able to rein the actor in. The best that you can say about Cage’s worst performances is that he’s never really phoning it in (well, maybe Bangkok Dangerous…). Here Cage discovers a new kind of “British” accent which I found impossible to take seriously. His character Gallain disappears after the opening, only to be found again in the final act. When we finally catch up with him again he looks like an 80’s rock star, complete with snakes wrapped around either hand. It’s ridiculous. The film wasn’t exactly going smoothly in the time since his departure in the opening, but his return to the film has the effect of grinding the story to a halt and forcing the audience out of the movie completely. Those looking for another oddball Nicolas Cage performance will get what they paid for, I guess, but even that crowd would be better off rewatching Kick-Ass, Raising Arizona, Bad Lieutenant, or even Vampire’s Kiss.

This is Christensen’s first film role since 2010. Christensen is actually pretty good in the lead role – well, good enough to prove that he deserves more work than he’s getting anyway. The actor has had only one excellent performance in his career (2003’s Shattered Glass) and since then his work hasn’t been very impressive. He begins the film by giving us some more of his Anakin Skywalker performance, but he evens things out somewhere in the middle of the film, adding more depth to the antihero character than was probably found on the page. While Outcast is clearly a paycheck movie for most everyone involved, Christensen uses the film to show off a bit of what he’s capable of, and I thought he brought some convincing physicality to the role. Still, at this point I’m not sure that Christensen is the guy you want as your film’s lead, and I think he’s probably better suited as part of an ensemble. So it’s unfortunate that not only does Christensen have to carry the film, but that Cage keeps making the job harder for him with his bizarre performance.

Andy On (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai) is boring as the film’s villain, but I don’t really feel the actor’s at fault here. The screenplay by James Dormer just isn’t very good, giving us lots of predictable scenes and bad dialogue. After Andy On’s Shing stabs his father, the King says, “Heaven forgive you.” The warrior Shing replies, “I have no place in Heaven because of what I’ve done for you.” Or something like that. You know, that line and others like it in probably read pretty well on the page, but when you speak them out loud they just sound preposterous.

The film often looks good thanks to some decent cinematography and impressive costumes and sets. And while the story is predictable, it does manage to move at a good pace. I never found the film boring, just woefully uninspired and occasionally very silly.

From what I can tell, though filmed in China, Outcast was actually made thanks to production companies from multiple nations. Supposedly early on in Outcast’s development it was going to be about Vikings and only later became about the Crusades and China. Whether that was the natural evolution of the story, or if the China setting only got added in there after Chinese money got involved, I don’t know. Considering the plot and locale, one would think that the final product was geared towards Asian audiences, but the English language would seem to dispute that. I’m just not really sure who this movie was made for. I think that, like the film’s characters, Outcast is kind of lost in the world.

In the short time since its release Outcast has developed the reputation of a total disaster. I don’t think it’s that bad. Which is not to say that I think it’s all that good either. It’s an overly familiar historical action movie that’s beaten down repeatedly by bad dialogue and one of Cage’s career worst performances. The best thing about the film is Hayden Christensen… though I realize that might sound like damning praise to most readers. I just don’t think there’s enough to the film to recommend it to any curious viewer. Outcast is totally skippable.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 4.5/10

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