It wasn’t that long ago that Jeff Bridges and Nicolas Cage were known as Academy Award-winning actors with talent to burn, but time and poor judgement (and in Cage’s case, tax bills) have turned the two into shallow, mumbling shadows of their former selves. Cage has been saying yes to every single offer he receives for a decade or more (seriously, the guy is averaging 2–3 movies per year, and most aren’t even hitting theaters), and Bridges has found himself in an odd rut of variations on True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn.
Seventh Son has had something of a troubled road to theaters – it was originally scheduled to release in February of 2013 – and now that it’s finally here you’d be hard-pressed to believe the delays added much to the final project. The hero is bland, the story plays out exactly as you’d expect and the action sequences are rarely all that exciting. And yet, there are some laughs and cool creature/character design. Outcast is far more grounded as it aims for a historical period vibe with Cage fighting in the Crusades until he decides it’s a bad scene all around, and it also differs by relegating its big-name elder-statesman star to supporting player. Neither man appears to be having all that much fun, although Bridges fakes it best.
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The world’s most evil witch, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a terrible woman totally not named after Fox News’ Michelle Malkin, had been previously drained of her power by the legendary Gregory (Bridges) the Spook, but those same powers are now returning with the rise of the blood moon. Gregory’s attempt to re-capture her results in the death of his apprentice (Kit Harington) which in turn forces him to find and train someone new. That someone is Tom (Ben Barnes), whose status as the seventh son of a seventh son makes him someone special despite his having been nicknamed Bland Tom by his fellow villagers. Their training ends early though as Malkin gathers an army around her and the pair are forced into action.
If the synopsis sounds like the standard tale of a normal teen discovering he’s actually the only one capable of stopping some great evil, well, that’s because it is. Director Sergey Bodrov’s stab at studio film-making hits all of the expected beats – Tom discovers important truths about himself, he gets a minor love interest, some element of his uniqueness is required to save the day – and never really tries to reach beyond them. The story never deviates from its generic path leading to a mostly unexciting romp through CGI-enhanced British Columbia accompanied by disengaged performances.
On the bright side that CGI is responsible for some inspired and fairly creative villains. The bad guys and gals are easily distinguishable from the rest because they’re the ones constantly shape-shifting into vicious creatures both real and imagined. There’s also an evil-doer named Virahadra – a character blatantly ripped from the Hindu being Virabhadra – who sword fights with four lightning-fast arms, and his action is smartly choreographed and captured.
Any charm the film manages comes from moments or jokes most likely added by one of the three credited screenwriters as opposed to the original source material. This is an assumption of course as I haven’t read any of the fourteen books in Joseph Delaney’s YA series, but I’d wager that none of them feature Gregory mumbling “fucking witches” as a way of showing his frustration. The meat of the script is far from charismatic as it refuses to leave even the smallest mystery hanging – every instance of magic is detailed, every creature is named (and one’s even given a level as if this was a Dungeons & Dragons module) – which makes for more of a fantasy story checklist than an engaging adventure. Of course the script also pretends Nietzsche never existed and tries to get away with the line “When you deal with dark, dark gets in you.”
Bridges mumbles quite a bit in this latest Cogburn incarnation, a skill he also utilized with his testy mentor roles in R.I.P.D. and The Giver, but at least he delivers some fun zingers along the way. Moore doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of her role and instead has to settle with this being a sad commentary on the films Hollywood has to offer its most talented actors. (If nothing else it’s also a strange reunion for the Big Lebowski stars.)
Seventh Son is a silly, frequently generic YA movie that coasts by on some fun, creative creature/character design and a goofy energy, but at no point is there anything resembling tangible drama or character depth. It’s surface-level fantasy, but for 102 minutes of your time you could do far, far worse.
Gallain (Cage) and his protege Jacob (Hayden Christensen) have been doing the Lord’s work for years as Catholic warriors during the Crusades, but their most recent assault has left an indelible, blood-soaked image in their heads. Fed up with the slaughter the two men leave the war behind and go their separate ways (and wind up in relatively the same part of China), but Jacob is drawn back into his violent lifestyle when he comes across locals in need of a champion. Zhao is just a boy, but he’s next in line as king after his father is murdered by Zhao’s battle-hardened older brother, Shing (Andy On). Now Zhao and his sister, Lian (Liu Yifei), are running for their life, and their best hope of a guardian angel comes in the form of a white devil.
Cage is something of the epitome of a modern day actor, but that hasn’t stopped him from dabbling in period pieces once or twice before. But while Windtalkers worked Season of the Witch revealed a real limitation in his ability to blend in with the times. Outcast fares no better in that department with possibly his poorest attempt at an accent yet, but thankfully he’s every bit a supporting player here appearing only in the beginning and the end of the film.
Which of course means the rest of the film is left to be carried on Christensen’s shoulders. That’s not actually as bad as it sounds because much of his role is purely physical, and Christensen delivers a convincingly capable persona on that front. He’s no master fighter, obviously, but he shows both ability and presence. His actual acting is still his biggest challenge as Jacob’s inner conflicts are flatly delivered.
Director Nick Powell’s eye for action and landscapes is his greatest strength as the battles are paced and choreographed well enough. There’s a lack of real scale in the scenes where we’re meant to believe a large conflict is occurring, but the smaller fights – mostly those involving On or Christensen – are solid.
Less successful, and the main reason why the film never achieves higher praise than “mediocre actioner,” is the script by James Dormer. It reaches for drama between Jacob and Gallain, between the men and their violent pasts and a budding relationship between Jacob and the princess, but it never comes close to making any of it feel compelling. Combine that with the overdone “white savior” story line and we’re left with a film that has nothing to say aside from the statement Christensen’s mohawk is making.
For all that fails to make Outcast memorable, the film remains a harmless and fast-paced diversion. Weak dramatic moments are numerous, but they’re wisely kept brief and interspersed with action beats. It’s destined to be forgotten, but if nothing else it stands out in Cage’s filmography in ways his steady string of limited release modern action-thrillers fail to do – seriously, can you recall the difference between Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen and Rage without looking them up first?