Blu-ray Review: Joe

There are odd moments when Nicolas Cage seems to be an actor again, not someone just doing crappy action films because he needs the money. Cage, who many people want to have the phrase “Academy Award Winner” stricken from as an introduction, has never been great at choosing films but usually there’s a handful that at least make the grade as entertaining. Ever since his Oscar turn in Leaving Las Vegas led to three action movies of high quality immediately afterwards (Con Air, Face/Off and The Rock), Cage has seemingly picked just enough dramatic roles to keep himself in the running for parts in films like Lord of War and The Weather Man … but he’s still down for an action film if the check has enough zeroes.

Or he has a tax problem, then really he’ll just sign on if you hand him a script.

It’s why a film like Joe seems the oddity in his career these days than the standard vehicle one expected when he won an Oscar nearly 20 years ago. Cage had a fairly substantial career in relevant films by 1995’s Vegas in a wide variety of roles, mostly comedy, but he had a ton of great parts in great films underneath his belt by that point. There’s an oddity in trying to reconcile the actor that he’s become with the one we thought he’d become all those years ago.

If you were in a coma in 1995 you’d think Joe would be the logical continuation of a great leading man’s career that came into its own with Leaving Las Vegas as opposed to the aberration in a B-movie actor’s continued descent from hoisting up an Oscar so many years ago. Joe focuses on Cage as the titular Joe, an ex-con who leads a manual labor team. When teenaged Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes looking for work, to help support his family, Joe finds that his violent past can lead down one of two paths for him and Gary. It’s a tale of redemption and violence in a cold, unforgiving area.

This is Cage doing his best version of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino but he doesn’t quite have the resume to back it up these days. Cage lacks that gravitas that Eastwood, who was much older for that part and had a much more substantial cinematic resume than Cage does now (and at the same point in their careers), because we don’t view him in the way you need to view Joe. If you ran into a guy like Joe at a high school reunion he would be the one that turned out exactly how you thought; he was the kid suspended for fighting a lot, et al, and only showed up to see friends (as he didn’t actually graduate). There’s a sense of a world weariness for Joe the character that Cage doesn’t have as an actor; he’s seen things and done things that most people wouldn’t be proud of. There’s a reason why the cops are always harassing him, trying to get him to do something to get him sent back to prison, but we don’t quite know it yet. It takes a special kind of actor to pull that off; Cage isn’t it.

He’s been in too much schlock over the years to be able to have that kind of gravitas at this point in his career.

It’s a shame because this is exactly the type of role he should be doing in his career at this point in time if he hadn’t had such a bizarre choice of roles since he won an Oscar. The handful of appropriate roles outweigh the armfuls of awful ones; the guy who starred in Drive Angry isn’t the kind of guy who has the sort of grizzled presence to properly bring dramatic weight to this role. No matter how you age him with makeup Cage just doesn’t have that presence you need for a role like Joe. At one point this would seem like a logical landing point for another Oscar run, and this is the sort of role that could’ve gotten him a sympathy one as a much older man, but right now it’s an awkward dramatic role in the resume of an actor who has shirked them for such higher fare as Trespass and Season of the Witch.

Joe features a great performance from first timer Gary Poulter (who died shortly after filming) and Tye Sheridan is slowly turning into the sort of teen actor we thought Freddie Highmore would become … but this film lives and dies on having Cage as the right actor at the right time to pull off the sort of role that being Joe means. It requires someone with that presence only someone who has that legendary resume, like an Eastwood, has. Cage isn’t that guy. He should be, and he might be able to become him, but this is the wrong role at the wrong time …but the right film.

A commentary track is included, as well as some EPK pieces and the usual deleted scenes.

Lionsgate presents Joe . Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Gary Hawkins based on the novel “Joe” by Larry Brown. Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Gary Poulter. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R. Released: June 17, 2014.

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