March 15, 2012

Seeking Justice

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Seeking Justice

THRILLER:

United States, 2011

U.S. Release Date:

2012-03-16

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Nicolas Cage, January Jones, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Carpenter, Harold Perrineau

Director:

Roger Donaldson

Screenplay:

Robert Tannen

Cinematography:

David Tattersall

Music:

J. Peter Robinson

U.S. Distributor:

Anchor Bay Films

Subtitles:

none


Seeking Justice is making a token theatrical stop on the fast track to home video (which is where the distributor, Anchor Bay, makes most of its money). A cheap and cheesy thriller that feels like it was (badly) adapted from a beach novel (although it wasn't), Seeking Justice would have been best served by a straight-to-DVD launch. It's one of those productions that is neither good enough nor bad enough to be enjoyable. It's overlong and preposterous, and the payoff fails to deliver the desired visceral thrill. The movie has been sitting around for a couple of years (filming completed in 2010) gathering dust and changing titles. Seeking Justice is its third, following The Hungry Rabbit Jumps and the shorter Justice, which was its name during an overseas release.

Nicolas Cage's amazing streak of bad movies continues. Cage's name on a marquee is fast becoming a warning sign to stay away. It's not that Cage doesn't invest himself in his roles, but the roles haven't been worth any kind of investment. He's working for Aussie Roger Donaldson, who has made some interesting contributions to the industry (including such diverse offerings as Cocktail?, Species, and The Bank Job) but who is now relegated to acting as a director for hire in order to keep active. In certain circumstances, there might be reason for optimism from a teaming of these two, but "optimism" doesn't apply here.

Seeking Justice is overstuffed with preposterous plot elements and contrivances. I could catalog them here, but why bother? When one is dealing with a potboiler, they come with the territory and would be easy enough to accept if the story as a whole was enjoyable. The chief problem with this film is not an overreliance upon genre clichés but a lack of material to fill out the full 105 minutes. For roughly the first third of its running length, Seeking Justice delivers the kind of low-level, Grade B entertainment one has the right to expect. Then it spends the next hour spinning its wheels with an uninteresting "investigation" that kills all momentum. The movie loses us and, by the time it gets back on track, we no longer care. This is lazy screenwriting.

The movie starts out like a revenge thriller. We have Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage), a high-energy high school English teacher, who is deliriously happily married to Laura (January Jones), a musician. One night, on her way home from rehearsals, Laura is assaulted and raped. As Will sits in the hospital waiting room, he is approached by the mysterious Simon (Guy Pearce). He represents a group of "concerned citizens" who are interested in helping Will. They know the identity of Laura's attacker and are afraid that if the cops catch him, he will somehow beat the rap and be back on the streets again to commit another crime. They offer Will a solution - they will take care of the problem in exchange for unnamed, future "favors." After a brief struggle with his conscience, Will agrees. Simon is as good as his word but the "favors," when they come, force Will into an untenable position and it soon becomes clear that Simon's motives aren't as civic-minded as they initially appear to be.

The movie reminded me a little of Sydney Pollock's adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm, a complete botch of the best-seller. The novel was no masterpiece but it was an effective page-turner. The movie diluted the tension, rewrote key elements, and generally made a mess of everything about the book that worked. Seeking Justice isn't based on a published manuscript, but it exhibits the same vibe. One of the few things it does right is to get us to root for Will, but the route to his obtaining justice is so long and torturous that it becomes irrelevant.

The movie is set in New Orleans and was apparently filmed there. Donaldson makes little use of the local color, however. Productions like The Big Easy have shown that the city can provide a great backdrop for a thriller; Seeking Justice turns it into a generic locale. Despite some throw-away lines referencing New Orleans and some street shots, this could have transpired in just about any big city in the United States. That, like so much else about the movie, feels like a missed opportunity.

Movies about revenge and vigilantism rely on the viewer's strong visceral reaction. They clearly delineate right from wrong and prey upon the inherent belief that justice and law have long been divorced. But, in Seeking Justice, there's no vicarious, orgasmic instance of violence. The moment when vengeance/justice is achieved is delivered with a hollow thud rather than a clap of thunder. The movie spends too much time running in circles filling out the narrative. Ultimately, as things develop, this becomes less about revenge than it does about escaping a set-up. A successful production of this sort needs to constantly elevate the stakes as it builds suspense. Seeking Justice fails and that failure makes it a dubious movie-going choice best suited to the low expectations of a video release.

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