Does anyone remember when Nicolas Cage used to be an actor?
Was "Raising Arizona" really that long ago? Or, for that matter, "Moonstruck," "Red Rock West," "Leaving Las Vegas?"
Oscar in hand, Cage took the low road with the awful action picture "The Rock," a diversion his admirers could explain away as a campy wink to his populist roots. Then came an overwrought turn in "Face/Off" by trendy Hong Kong bullet choreographer John Woo, which was cool because it was Woo. Then "Con Air," another one from the producers of "The Rock," only twice as idiotic and three times as despicable.
Now comes "Eight Millimeter," which has lowered the bar yet again in Cage's sad declension of a career. At this point, it's clear he's doing this stuff for money, not kicks (who in Hollywood isn't), but it's time for audiences finally to put the question: How much is enough?
This much can be said for Cage: He has met his craven match in Joel Schumacher, the filmmaker responsible for such hackery as "Batman and Robin," "St. Elmo's Fire" and countless vats of John Grisham starch.
A turgidly mainstream director of no discernible visual signature or narrative flair, Schumacher makes a bid for edginess in "Eight Millimeter," not in any formal way -- this movie is as dreary-looking and ploddingly paced as his others -- but in its grim setting of the underworld of hard-core pornography.
Cage plays a private investigator who is hired to find a young actress who may or may not have been killed while making a "snuff" film, and "Eight Millimeter" purports to be the chronicle of a decent man's journey to his own dark side. But make no mistake about it: "Eight Millimeter" is about Hollywood functionaries turning themselves on, sticking it to the audience and making lots and lots of money.
Some very good actors are wasted here (Cage doesn't count anymore). Catherine Keener and James Gandolfini look utterly lost in the hell that Schumacher has created. Joaquin Phoenix provides the only real performance in a film driven more by its own fetishes than by anything so square as character or story.
In fine old Hollywood tradition, Schumacher has his cake and eats it, too. He presents titillating snippets and glimpses of the seediest pornography, then makes sure Cage registers disgust (usually by biting his knuckle). Schumacher is asking the audience to believe that he's decrying porn, even as he uses it in every whorish manner possible to sell his movie.
We've seen this kind of cynicism before, most floridly in "Seven," which -- what a coincidence! -- was written by the same man who wrote "Eight Millimeter." And if it's done with some degree of sophistication or artistry, manipulation isn't an unforgivable sin in the cinema. But Schumacher doesn't have the chops.
For all the bondage gear, S&M; utensils and other artifacts shown in "Eight Millimeter," it's Schumacher who's the real sadist. The only question is whether he and Cage have finally overestimated the masochism of their audience.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Running time: 123 minutes
Released by Columbia Pictures
Sun score: *
Pub Date: 2/26/99