‘Seeking Justice’ in Cajun Country

Cage takes on vigilantes and snags a criminally good thriller

Nicolas Cage might sleepwalk through much of his career, but if you think he can’t act, take another look at his staggering work in Leaving Las Vegas, or catch up with his cathartic, above-average performance in the new urban crime thriller Seeking Justice. It’s a welcome surprise.

Directed by New Zealand’s king of pain Roger Donaldson, it begins with an SUV pushed off the roof of a New Orleans parking garage in the middle of Mardi Gras. Nobody gets hurt except the driver, thus setting the scene for a formulaic explosion of mayhem and silliness. But brace yourself. What follows is a roller-coaster ride, off the beaten track and dashed with detours, and unexpectedly plausible.

Cage is Will Gerard, a hard-working, law-abiding English teacher in a ghetto high school on Rampart Street, whose wife, Laura, is a beautiful cellist in a classical orchestra, played by January Jones on a semester break from Mad Men. One night, leaving rehearsal on the way to her car, Laura is mugged, raped, brutally beaten and left for dead. At the hospital, while waiting for news of her critical condition, the distraught, shell-shocked Will is approached by a dapper but unctuously suspicious mystery man who introduces himself as simply “Simon” (Guy Pearce) and not only claims to know the assailant’s identity, but offers to kill him as a public service. “Simon” reminds Will that if he pursues justice through normal channels it will take years and even if the rapist is convicted, his sentence will amount to “half the time you get for tax evasion.” The only catch is that Will might be called on at some future date for a “favor.” Despite obvious moral reservations and his resistance to breaking the law himself, Will gives in to his grief and rage, knowing the chances of ever catching his wife’s attacker and bringing him to justice in the nebulous and overburdened court system are next to impossible.

The deed is done. The culprit is eliminated in a gang-style execution, and Will thinks the case is closed. Fat chance. His problems are just beginning, and six months later, when the paybacks begin, Will and Laura find themselves sinking deeper into a trap of criminal involvement that reaches nightmare proportions. The action leapfrogs across the city, propelled by secret handshakes, clandestine meetings in raunchy saloons, clues in a certain brand of chocolate bar from a candy dispenser, and cryptic spy-movie passwords (i.e., “the hungry rabbit jumps”) and culminates in a gun battle staged in the deserted section of the New Orleans Superdome that has never been restored since Hurricane Katrina. They can’t go to the cops because they’re members of the vigilante group, too.

The movie relies heavily on the mass panic of Americans whose civil liberties are slowly being diminished by such invasive forces as the Homeland Security Department and the growing impotence of the criminal court system. Strangely, it only occasionally challenges credulity, and the script by Robert Tannen is so rooted in convincing realism that it really keeps you going.

The total realism of the three central performances aids the film immeasurably. Cage is an average Joe who could be your accountant or your friendly teller at Citibank. Jones still has the most beautiful hair in show business, and in her portrayal of an innocent wife plunged into a vortex of trauma, there’s not a strand out of place. Bald for no reason but affectation, the versatile and always reliable Pearce is creepy and riveting as an independent hit man who circumvents the time-wasting hours of legal red tape that renders impotent the victims of hoodlums and thugs by taking the errant law into his own hands. Behind the mask of a soft-spoken solid citizen’s concern for fairness and justice, he hides a lethal promise of inescapable evil.

The secret organization that recruits ordinary citizens to dispose of the scumbags responsible for the Crescent City going to hell is supported by even the most powerful city fathers until “Simon,” the leader of the gang, spirals out of control and goes viral, disposing of investigative journalists and anyone else who attempts to expose him. Hard to reconcile, I grant you, but I bought it. The acting, writing and production values are coherent and naturalistic enough to make even the most challenging plot twists seem logical.

My one caveat: Donaldson, a foreign director shooting on location in a New Orleans with which he is clearly unfamiliar, fails to take advantage of the exotic ambience of the most photogenic city in America. You get car chases on generic overpasses and homicides in seedy hotel rooms. There is one scene in which Cage mails a letter at the Audubon Park Zoo, but for all you see of the defining atmosphere of a lush and beautiful city that can never be duplicated on a Hollywood sound stage, Seeking Justice could just as easily take place in Bakersfield, Brooklyn, or Altoona, Pa.

Still, the movie satisfies, standing on its own even without the visual garnish. I’m usually pretty good at figuring these things out, but I didn’t have a clue what was coming next. Seeking Justice is an intense thriller so full of shocks it keeps you wired from start to finish.

Seeking Justice (R) ★★★☆☆

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