THE STORY – After being forced to drive a mysterious passenger at gunpoint, a man finds himself in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse where it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems.
THE CAST – Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinneman, Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, Cameron Lee Price, Burns Burns, Rich Hopkins & Nancy Good
THE TEAM – Yuval Adler (Director), Luke Paradise (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
All actors become derivative. If one is fortunate enough to give iconic performances, then one has to expect that the backend of their career is going to be filled with requests for them to do the same thing in different films. Nicolas Cage has hit the derivative stage with a vengeance.
If we exclude his exceptional turn in “Pig” (2021), most of Cage’s recent performances have been some riff or expansion upon something he’s already done. He played an exaggerated version of himself in “The Unbearable Weight of Talent” (2022). “Renfield” (2023), the gory comedy in which he played Count Dracula, felt like a wink to the guy he played in “Vampire’s Kiss” (1992). “The Flash” (2023) finally gave Cage a chance to play Superman after the film “Superman Lives!” was shelved back in 1996. These films vary in quality, but their eagerness to lean on Cage’s legacy and meme-able presence unify them under the same low ceiling. A film can only be so entertaining when it’s reheating leftover ingredients from the actor’s heyday.
Cage’s latest film, “Sympathy for the Devil” (2023), runs into the same problem. It’s got energy and two committed performances at its center, but it’s near impossible to sit through it and not be reminded of at least a dozen other films (half of them Cage’s). The premise should be familiar for anyone who’s seen “Collateral” (2004): a driver is held at gunpoint and forced to drive a deranged killer around for a night. The former is literally billed as the Driver (Joel Kinnaman), and the latter as the Passenger (Cage).
It’s neo-noir catnip on paper. There’s lots of tough talk between The Driver and The Passenger and an increasingly bleak outlook culminating in a bloody standoff. Yuval Adler directs “Sympathy for the Devil,” and he’s proven that he can make decent crime fare through previous efforts like “The Operative” (2019) and “The Secrets We Keep” (2020). None of his films have an exceptionally distinct style, but they get the job done, and they provide outlets for actors in between more notable projects.
Adler knows that Cage and Kinneman are his greatest assets in “Sympathy for the Devil,” and they show up to work. Cage chews the scenery in nearly every conversation, dishing out Cage-isms that feel borderline improvised. Kinneman is the model of insecurity, fidgeting in the driver’s seat and desperately looking for a way to gain the upper hand. The progression of their characters is adequately handled, and things play out in 90 minutes.
You’ll notice a lack of specificity in my description, and that is because the film itself lacks specificity. “Sympathy for the Devil” is neo-noir done in broad strokes, drawing an outline of what fans would want from a grimy crime flick without coloring in the gaps. Cage loses his marbles every few minutes, and it’s fun to watch (as always), but the nondescript way in which the Passenger is rendered means that his marble losing lacks the punch that it had in a film like “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009).
It’s not a matter of depth. The best neo-noir films can often be the ones that leave the most to the imagination in terms of backstory. It’s more a matter of execution. The few details we get about The Passenger are a hodgepodge of details that Cage has played better elsewhere. He’s violent and unpredictable, like his character in “Kiss of Death” (1995). His garish suit splits the difference between the clothing his characters wore in “Wild at Heart” (1990) and “Face/Off” (1997). He has a spotty East Coast accent, which reminded me of another under-the-radar neo-noir, “Dog Eat Dog” (2016).
The difference between “Dog Eat Dog” and “Sympathy for the Devil” is perhaps the most telling. Neither film is a masterpiece, and both feature a cheap, neon-tinted aesthetic, but the former has some outlandishly memorable scenes. The climax, in which a bloodied Cage hijacks an old couple’s car, sits them in the back, and then drives around, making Humphrey Bogart impressions, is something I’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. It was bold, weird, and the brainchild of the film’s director, Paul Schrader (before his “First Reformed” renaissance).
“Sympathy for the Devil” has no such memorability. It gets close a few times during the final act. Kinneman really gets to showcase his intensity as his character’s frustration reaches a boiling point, but it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The film had the right idea in terms of a stripped-down approach and an emphasis on acting; it just forgot to give its actors something compelling to do. The resulting experience is not bad, per se, just fleeting. If you see and enjoy it, you likely won’t remember that you did.