There’s no real magic ingredient guaranteed to make a movie better. Well, aside from a chainsaw duel, obviously, but how often can that situation be worked into a story? The next best thing, though, is simply to cast Nicolas Cage in pretty much any role. If Cage is talking there’s little chance you’re gonna be bored, and while the movie around him might not live up to his talent it’s made that much better by his presence. Which brings us to the new thriller Sympathy for the Devil.
An unnamed man (Joel Kinnaman) races through Los Angeles’ streets before pulling up to a hospital. He’s there as his wife is about to give birth, but before he can even turn off the car another man (Cage) hops into the backseat, pulls a gun, and demands that the driver hit the gas. The driver and the passenger — neither man is given a name — speed off into the night, destination unknown, and the mind games begin. The passenger knows what he’s after but is being elusive, and the driver simply wants to stay alive and see his newborn. As the drive continues, though, an unexpected connection between the two arises that throws a wrench into both men’s plans.
Sympathy for the Devil unavoidably reminds viewers of Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) right out of the gate as a gunman carjacks both car and driver for a night of “fun” in L.A. That’s where the similarities end, though, as the story being told here is less about character, atmosphere, and action than it is some twisty plot beats. That’s not a knock as director Yuval Adler and writer Luke Paradise keep things interesting enough and deliver a moderately satisfying wrap up as truths and revelations come clear.
All of that said, without Cage this is a competent thriller you’ll forget by morning. The twists aren’t weighty, the action is slight, and Kinnaman feels muted as a protagonist. With Cage, though, well that’s a different story.
His passenger slips into the car in subdued fashion and maintains that calm for the short term, but as suggested by the red hair Cage is sporting, there’s a fire burning inside that’s ready to blast outward. No one does non sequitur outbursts like Cage, and Sympathy for the Devil gives him more than a few opportunities to cut loose out of the blue. He finds reason to snap and bellow at the drop of a hat, and it’s delightful as always. Why deliver generic dialogue flatly or with minimal emotion when you can find some combination of sing-song volume shifts and creative word choice?
The result is that Cage’s character becomes the life of the party — a common occurrence when it comes to the actor’s direct-to-video filmography — and leaves everyone and everything else fighting over the scraps. That’s good news for Cage fans, and you won’t walk away from the movie feeling bored, but so much of his character’s appeal also feels disconnected from the film. We’re having fun because Cage is a wild card, but that electricity doesn’t quite transfer over to his character or the film’s own energy. Cage feels removed from the rest, above it somehow riding on pure personality and hopped up on goofballs, and Kinnaman as the film’s co-lead is left in his wake.
Sympathy for the Devil is fine, and both Adler and Paradise deliver a perfectly okay film, but good movies manage more than that bare minimum. You might nod in silent approval at the third act story turns, but the only hooting and hollering you’ll hear will be coming from Cage’s wildly unstable man in red. Add it to the ever-growing list of films elevated by the actor’s undeniable screen presence and penchant for beautifully erratic asides and hand gesture antics. And then go rewatch 2018’s Mandy which has the decency to pair Cage magic with a goddamn chainsaw duel.