Arsenal is one of those movies that, if we still had video stores, based on the marquee names of Nicolas Cage (Mandy, Color Out of Space) and John Cusack (Better Off Dead), you would have plucked it off the shelf. Those were the days when, for the 5 Videos-5 Days-5 Bucks offers many indie-stores had, you’d take a gamble on anything.
Sadly, in these digital days when you have to pay $5.99 to $7.99 for a digital rental, we don’t gamble that much on movies. (And I ask you: Was Arsenal even on cable VOD? Was it even available on Redbox? Did Walmart carry it in their cutout barrels in the electronics section? Honestly, I’ve never heard of Arsenal.)
It’s that retarding digital distribution environment that causes a film like Arsenal—an admittedly slow, but decent film noir action-thriller overflowing with ultra-violence and complex-beyond-cardboard characters—the type of characters we don’t get in the big studio set pieces that cut-out emotional layers and concentrate on the bullets—to being ignored at the digital box office. (Arsenal was a theatrical release in Europe.)
And this is how a hangover from last night’s holiday frolicking on the last Friday night of the year leads to your Saturday morning of couch surfing and channel grazing with your bowl of Coco Puffs (Fruity Pebbles, if you got ‘em) as you discover a well-written and well-directed film on a tight budget ($10 million is a “low budget” in these comic book franchise days): when it plays on the SyFy Channel.
Yep. Hollywood is a cruel, filmmaking mistress. Oscar be a bitch in gold clothing.
When we first meet the Lindel brothers, the younger, middle-school J.P always looks up to his older, high-school brother Mikey, who’s a face-slapping dickhead one minute, then a giving, caring brother the next. When their ill-drunk grandmother decides it’s time to leave the Terra by shotgun suicide, Mikey supports them both by working for Cage’s small-time mobster, Eddie King, making coke deliveries and committing petty crimes-for-profit.
Now grown up, blue collar brothers, J.P (now Adrian Grenier, HBO’s Entourage) is a responsible owner of a construction company; Mikey (now Johnathon Schaech, That Thing You Do!) is a black sheep that causes chaos, not only in his own family, but J.P’s. When J.P floats a 10 G loan to help his older brother pay off some family responsibilities, Mikey decides to buy coke from Eddie King and “flip it” to 20 Gs. Then the coke is stolen. And Eddie thinks Mikey ripped him off. So he kidnaps and ransoms Mikey for 300 percent more than the coke is worth. “You little brats owe me! I raised you!” screams Eddie King as he punches a chair-tied Mikey in the face.
So J.P—doing something his brother would never do for him—sets out with their childhood friend Sal (a perpetually black-clad and baseball-capped John Cusack), now a rogue undercover cop, to rescue Mikey. And they open up the “Arsenal.”
Arsenal is the type of movie Nicolas Cage—he openly admits—makes to pay down his highly publicized tax problems. It’s also the type of movie that gives top-billing to Nicolas Cage and John Cusack—who everyone came to see—then pulls the ol’ bait n’ switch with Johnathon Schaech and Adrian Grenier—that no one came to see (but they’re both very good here). It’s also the type of film where Nicolas Cage lets loose his unhinged, biblical self as we listen to the traditional religious tunes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Oh Freedom” as his Eddie King character gives CGI-blood-flowing-out-of-the-mouth, slow-motion beat downs by baseball bat and fist.
Now, in case you haven’t figured it out, Arsenal wants to be “Quentin Tarantino”—but you end up with another “Boondock Saints.” But we all loved Boondock Saints . . . remember?
Anyway, Cage, as is the case in his lean, direct-to-video-in-the-U.S-and-theatrical-release-overseas years, portrays another one of his patented, over-the-top cartoonish characters. Cage is known for his extreme form of method acting—where he rips teeth out of his head without anesthesia, spends five weeks with his head wrapped in bandages, walks around in corpse paint, eats an all-raw meat diet, and has hot yogurt poured over his feet to prepare for a scene. So, when we see Cage’s name, we wonder: What crazy-ass play from his “Noveau Shamanic” playbook is he going to run with this time?
This time: he’s running the “Tony Clifton.”
I don’t know how else to describe it. From the first moment of his very limited screen time (about 20 minutes combined, tops; same for John Cusack), the VCR centers of my brain loaded a VHS of Andy Kaufman’s old Tony Clifton routines. Cage’s Eddie King is (maybe not) a parody of Kaufman’s boorish lounge singer—complete with a fake nose and oversized sunglasses, a droopy walrus mustache and the kind of fake wig an insecure bald man would wear and think he’s “sexy.”
Oh, yes. The Cage never disappoints. And the Cage never treads middle ground. He’s either a master of his craft . . . or he’s past-his-prime awful in the eyes of the viewer. Either way, you’re leaving entertained.
Oh, and there’s an additional twist to Cage’s Eddie King: It’s the second time he’s portrayed the character. It turns out Arsenal serves as a sequel to the film Deadfall (1993)—despite the fact that Cage’s character dies in Deadfall. So, in actuality, Arsenal is an Eddie King prequel. (I’ve never heard of or seen Deadfall, either. Help us out, SyFy!) Oh, and the character of Buddy, Eddie King’s older brother in Arsenal, is played by Christopher Coppola, the real-life older brother of Nicolas Cage (born Nicolas Coppola), who directed Nick in Deadfall.
And there are a few, additional twists to writer-director Steven C. Miller’s Arsenal.
While it isn’t a prequel-sequel, Arsenal is Adrien Grenier and Johnathon Schaech’s second paring: they also starred in Marauders (2016), another film written and directed Miller. Arsenal also unites the two lead actors from the 8MM franchise: Nicolas Cage starred in 8MM (1999) and Johnathon Schaech was in 8MM 2 (2005). And Arsenal is the fourth collaboration of Nicolas Cage and John Cusack: they worked together Con Air (1997) and Adaptation (2002), and the no-one-saw-it, The Frozen Ground (2013). (Caveat emptor: they’re not in any scenes together in Arsenal.)
Say what you will about Arsenal (IMDb users were not kind), but Steven C. Miller knows how to bring on the action with morally-screwed characters. His other films include First Kill (2017, starring Bruce Willis), 2018’s Escape Plan 2: Hades, and Line of Duty (2019, starring Aaron Eckhart). Miller’s also directed a remake of Silent Night, Deadly NIght and almost brought a new version of Motel Hell to the big screen. Arsenal’s first time screenwriter, Jason Mosberg, created the 2018 limited original series One Dollar for the CBS All Access digital platform.
So do yourself a favor. The next time you see Steven C. Miller’s or Jason Mosberg’s name on something, give it spin. You’ll be entertained.
And what in the hell is this about? “Nic Cage Bitch” is our Nicolas Cage blowout written by Paul Andolina of Wrestling with Film. It’s a must read for all fans of the Cage, so check it out and learn about some Cage films you may have missed, such as A Score to Settle, Between Worlds, Kill Chain, Outcast, Rage, and Seeking Justice.
About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.