The Tao of Nicolas Cage: Men of Courage

By  · Published on February 17th, 2017

Cage gets stranded at sea where he squares off with sharks.

A movie with Nicolas Cage and sharks should be the greatest movie of all time. It should be. Unfortunately that’s not the case with USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage but it’s not due to a lack of effort on the film’s part.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is the latest film from director Mario Van Peebles and its based off the true story of the USS Indianapolis, a Navy vessel that served during World War II. The Indianapolis is most famous for being the ship that took on a super top secret mission to deliver key parts for Little Boy, the first atomic bomb used in action. Due to the nature of the mission the Indianapolis traveled unaccompanied leaving it open to attacks from enemy submarines.

On July 30, 1945, after the parts for Little Boy were delivered and Indianapolis was making its return the ship was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese sub. Within 12 minutes of the hit the ship had completely folded over on itself and sunk into the ocean, taking with it roughly 300 members of the 1,200-man crew. The surviving crew were left out in in shark-infested waters while they waited for help. It would take nearly four days for that help to come and by that time only 317 crew members were left alive, making for the biggest disaster in US Naval history.

Cage stars as Charles B. McVay III, the commanding officer on the Indianapolis when it went down. Joining Cage is Tom Sizemore as one of the ship’s more senior officers and Thomas Jane as Lt. Adrian Marks, the man who eventually rescued the survivors. The rest of the cast is filled out with a bunch of young actors people aren’t likely to know but they all do a surprisingly good job. One stand out is Mandela Van Peebles, the son of Mario, as a young member of the crew’s mess hall that documents everything in his journal.

The film does do some things right. Going into my viewing most my of knowledge regarding the USS Indianapolis came from Quint’s speech in Jaws – I would learn while watching the special features on the Blu-ray that Cage’s knowledge too came from that speech – so needless to say what I knew was pretty limited. After watching the film I decided to do some research and to the best of my knowledge USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is pretty accurate and true to the events that really occurred. That seems like a no-brainer but often times these things are fabricated greatly so it’s nice to see the filmmakers did their best to keep this based in reality. And it’s actually a pretty terrible story and quite the black eye for the US Navy, especially the details about how McVay was treated after the fact.

The stuff that is likely all made up is the various backstories and interactions of the many crew members aboard the ship. This stuff tries to be good but is pretty cliche. And there’s also too many characters jammed into the film that ends up making everything confusing and hard to follow along at times. The actors do their best but they don’t have a lot to work with, especially in terms of dialogue which is really awful.

The shark portion of the film is what I was most interested in and I’m pleased to say the sharks actually look pretty good. Animatronic sharks were used for the most part and they look really good. There was only one moment with a shark that I could have done without. It involved a shark jumping out of the water to eat someone and it was a bit rough. Luckily it’s just a quick moment that doesn’t linger on the screen.

Speaking of lingering the film suffers heavily from showing too much poor CGI, a lot of times when it isn’t needed and adds nothing to the movie. There’s a couple instances with planes flying by that are clearly fake. Why? There’s no need to show those. The audience can quickly spot them as fake, so just get rid of them. There’s also numerous shots of the inner workings of the missiles preparing to launch from the Japanese submarine. These are all really bad CGI. Don’t show them, we don’t need to see that. But the most offensive use of CGI comes during the actually sinking of the ship. Once the ship breaks in half and has one portion sticking straight up out of the water we see a member of the crew hanging onto the railing for dear life. Behind him is the ocean, part of an obvious green screen. Eventually the guy falls to his death. I get seeing this once, but the movie keeps coming back to this over and over. And every time you notice how bad the green screen work is.

It’s too bad there was so much focus on the bad effects when the film did have great sharks and they actually did some filming in the ocean. Come on guys, focus on the good stuff!

As far as Cage goes, he’s good. This is a more reserved side of Cage that we don’t see that often, especially these days. I believe Cage takes every role seriously, but doesn’t necessarily play them serious, if that makes sense. Some roles – a lot of roles when we’re talking Cage – call for outlandish performances but not all. Cage wisely plays this one closer to the vest.

On one hand that’s a bit disappointing because seeing Cage bring the rage on some sharks sounds pretty awesome. But this is a more serious, straight role deserving of a more serious, straight performance and that’s exactly what Cage gives. This is the type of performance that leads me to believe Cage could absolutely still carry a big, dramatic studio picture if given the chance.

Oddly enough, despite how encouraging I find Cage’s performance, this is one of the rare occasions where I’ve watched a newer Cage picture and been bummed out. The reasoning behind that is I’m convinced that there’s a really good movie to be had here. With a larger budget and some tweaks to the script USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage could be a successful blockbuster. You could even make it with the same exact cast because there all good enough. You just need additional money to clean up the poor effects and a better screenwriter. If this same exact movie was pitched in 1996 with Cage as the lead it gets that budget. The part that bums me out is that I’m not sure Cage will ever get that chance again.

The Tao of Nicolas Cage: The Perfect Pairing

I’m not saying Cage won’t have success at the box office again. I think he will but it’ll likely be with an indie movie that far outperforms its budget or some crazy over-the-top action movie. Both of those are fine by me, obviously. I love stuff like Joe and I’m all in for any action Cage. But is Cage ever going to get a chance to do a big budget dramatic piece again? I don’t know, man, I don’t know. And that makes me sad.

Don’t let me get you down though. There’s still plenty of good Cage fun to be had, some of it here in USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage. If you’re a Cage fan for sure give this one a watch. It’s 45 minutes or so too long and there’s too much of that bad CGI that I absolutely hate, but there’s some moments worth your time and you get a pretty accurate telling of a terrible US naval disaster.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)