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C + C Misery Factory: The Numbers Station | Stolen (2013|2012)

By Dom Sinacola · Jun 17, 2013

John Cusack and Nicolas Cage will reunite post-Con Air for this summer’s The Frozen Ground, which seems notable—or so promotional teaser’s inform me—because Vanessa Hudgens plays an “adult” role as a prostitute who also smokes cigarettes and wears revealing outfits. It’s a serial killer true-to-life procedural about Robert Hansen (Cusack), a man currently in an Alaskan prison who murdered 17 young women between 1971 and 1983. Nicolas Cage yet again portrays a world-weary cop, specifically a state trooper who obsessively tries to prove Hansen’s guilt despite a merciless bureaucratic justice system which coldly (Get it? Alaska?) insists against it.

What’s less notable about Frozen Ground is how, even without having seen it, I know it’ll thoroughly affirm all my assumptions about the vocational paths of these two stars. Not 16 years ago, in director Simon West’s Con Air, Cage + Cusack felt right helming an action movie, two examples of rugged, clever, surprisingly manly men of about the same age fit to serve as the exact kind of blue-collar heroes to stop a loose psychopath (John Malkovich) from successfully hijacking a prison jet. Yet today they increasingly sign on to direct-to-Netflix genre pieces, type-cast as broken, weathered shells of men who are worn down to the quick by the emotionally devastating lives they’ve led and the toll everything they’ve seen has taken on their more and more vulnerable psyches. Their careers are on an asymptotic plotting; even their hairlines are beginning to look identical.

John Cusack

nicolas cage

Cage especially is looking more and more like Mr. Horse from Ren and Stimpy.

Though his whole life in the past decade of so resembles an expected though proto-typical crumbling of a person’s taste and sanity when pit against an unforgiving Hollywood machine—Wesley Snipes immediately comes to mind—his role in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant re-imagining exemplifies the physical putridity of the kind of men both him and Cusack portray nowadays: hunch-backed, chips upon chips on their shoulders, overtired and underpaid and wrecked. Cusack’s made similar headway into the persona of the Haunted Man through his work in such ugly, moody paychecks as The Raven and The Factory, two movies which define the middle-aged Cusack as a brooding, sunken archetype consumed by his own doom. It’s a far cry from any rom-com beginnings, I guess.

Granted, both men have done a lot in the ensuing years since Steve Buscemi played a super child molester, but a Sorceror’s Apprentice or a Hot Tub Time Machine have done nothing to stem the tide of what’s coming for both of them. Which is obsolescence. These actors are falling apart before our eyes. And in many ways they deserve our pity.

In the past year, Cage + Cusack have each released yet another dour crime thriller to add to their resumes, Stolen and The Numbers Game (hereon: TNG) respectively, wherein they once again take up the mantle of the equally dour anti-hero. In Stolen (which was also directed by Simon West, FYI), Cage is a world-class bank robber who, after a lengthy prison stint, must rescue his daughter from the clutches of a former colleague (Josh Lucas). Prison has of course changed Cage’s protagonist, adding a few creases to his forehead to say the least, but his daughter’s kidnapping forces him to quickly face the troubled past that landed him in such a dire situation in the first place. In turn, TNG features Cusack as a shell-shocked CIA black ops agent reassigned, after witnessing a brutal murder committed under the top-secret auspices of the government which employs him, as handler to a code-cracker stationed in a remote, classified military base. When terrorists threaten to take over the base, Cusack’s Gloomy Gus must again come face-to-face with the gray morality of the intelligence world in the highest echelons of our society. Much like Cage once came face-to-face with John Travolta in Face/Off. They’re like the same movies.

As is typical of these kinds of pulpy Broken Dude action flicks, the Cages + Cusacks of the world can’t help but take on Prodigal Father roles, which give them daughters, traditionally, who ultimately save them from the brink of existential desolation. The common denominator/daughter-in-distress amongst Stolen and TNG is played by Malin Åkerman, who in TNG is the hysterical code-cracker Cusack’s CIA operative must save and in Stolen—though she’s not Cage’s kidnapped daughter—was a part of Cage’s original team of bank robbers still, when Cage gets out of jail, committed to their friendship while seemingly everyone else has abandoned him. In the latter her baddassery is more on display, as she’s a helpful ally in Cage’s search for his daughter, but the details become increasingly negligent: Åkerman is in both movies an intelligent young woman whose classic good looks, unblinking loyalty, and impressive moral fiber are indicative of the kind of purity her male counterparts—her Cages and her Cusacks—have lost.

More complicated is Åkerman’s relationship to Cage’s character in Stolen, at least as compared to her relatively paternalistic partner in TNG, who, perhaps due to how she’s a capable thief and therefore a more masculine specimen in West’s film, in the end reveals a gross romantic attachment to Cage. That’s a suitcase of daddy issues I’m not about to unpack here—if it were even possible to do so given what little character development she’s afforded throughout—but the intent is clear in both cases: broken men need a yet unbroken woman to fix them. Daughter or young lover, whoever, a virgin must step in to rectify the damaged spirit of a man crushed by the duty of keeping the world under control. Which is an inherently tiring trope to pair with inherently tired characters.

This isn’t Malin Åkerman’s fault, though she lends easily to exactly this kind of role. She’s a capable actor with a demeanor both pleasant and not entirely transparent, which I guess means she’s a flexible person to hire in these less-than-demanding stints, even though she’s stepped up to stuff like Watchmen, which I can only imagine was weird to be a part of. My guess is that Zack Snyder just has an erection all the time. The guy’s probably in a lot of pain, actually. Which is why everyone in his movies are always screaming at the heavens or at each other. I saw Man of Steel this weekend, and the thing just screams at you for two hours. It was cool, though. I read that Michael Shannon is really into Silver Jews? Which somehow makes him more appealing as a maniacal demigod. You could see the pieces of scenery stuck between his teeth. It was IMAX after all.

Åkerman’s career isn’t DOA upon the release of crap like Stolen and TNG, but it sure won’t go anywhere because of Cage or Cusack either. She’s biding her time under the guise of working with big stars both at gritty, intense points in their careers, and so she’s mostly wasting it. If anything, the coincidence that she worked alongside both of these men in very alike capacities is something of a cautionary tale for future amenable actresses like Vanessa Hudgens. Though Hudgens is leaning more toward the “whore” part of the dichotomy that attaches itself to the kinds of bleak tales Cage + Cusack are telling, she’s still bound to get caught up in those two men’s tractor beam of misery. It’s the soul-sucking force of failed artistic inspiration that absorbs the energy and verve of Hollywood’s enthusiastic youth in order to keep buoyant the livelihood of two guys who can’t manage to get any work that isn’t a shallow reflection of the kind of palpable brokenness they feel inside. That Cusack will soon play Richard Nixon in The Butler feels like more of a Swan Song than yet another forgettable role. That Cage will soon play the main character in the Left Behind remake is pretty much just an omen of things to come: not even an act of God will make these dudes go away.

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