Remember when John Travolta and Nicolas Cage packing heat in a genre movie was a major event? Back in the summer of 1997, the two actors—one a newly minted Oscar winner, the other still enjoying a Tarantino-abetted career revival—lent their sizable star power to one of the nuttiest, most psychologically thrilling action movies Hollywood has ever engineered. Face/Off didn’t just base its whole marketing campaign around these heavyweights, well, facing off. (The poster was literally just their faces with their last names in big, bold letters above them.) It also promised, and delivered, a kind of high-concept hook based on their stature as marquee performers: You wouldn’t just be getting Cage vs. Travolta, you’d be getting Cage playing Travolta and vice versa. It was a popcorn shoot-’em-up built around the acting chops of its headliners. How novel.
Those were better days for star-driven action vehicles and much better ones for Cage and Travolta. Nearly two decades later, both are still lending their famous faces and names to cops-and-robbers fare. But as their clout has diminished, so have the budgets, the ambitions, the quality. Cage and Travolta have been swallowed up by the lucrative VOD action industry, cashing paychecks for their appearances in films barely fit for the multiplex. By chance, the two are actually facing off again this weekend—not in one movie, alas, but two separate ones, each distributed by Saban Films and each opening in a handful of theaters after premiering on home-viewing platforms. But only one of these low-stakes potboilers actually affords its slumming leading man a chance to actually act.
It’s sure as hell not I Am Wrath, which gives the former Sean Archer one moment of cradling-his-dying-loved-one anguish and then lets a few cuts, scrapes, and facial lesions do the emoting for him. Fresh off his high-profile performance as Robert Shapiro, Travolta plays an ex-black ops soldier (à la Denzel in The Equalizer, which looks about as good as Face/Off compared to this amateur-hour junk) who hunts down the multi-ethnic gang of thugs who murdered his wife, uncovering a political conspiracy in the process. It’s yet another entry in the endless cycle of middle-aged vigilante rampages—a formula that no one but Liam Neeson seems capable of actually wringing entertainment from, try as his various fiftysomething peers might.
Of course, Taken is just a souped-up Death Wish on foreign soil, and I Am Wrath owes way more, plot-wise, to the cleaning-up-the-streets crusades of Charles Bronson. If the film’s casual racism—the villains are almost all some shade of not-white—feels more perfunctory than malicious, it’s because it’s just another secondhand element in the collection of bad clichés passing for a script. Travolta watches home videos in the dark, a glass of scotch in hand, as bad guys ask whether he’d rather do things the easy way or the hard way. (It’s always the hard way for Mr. Wrath.) You’d never guess that any of the shoot-outs in dimly lit bars, strip clubs, and tattoo parlors were staged by a director with any experience. Maybe ’90s veteran Chuck Russell (The Mask, Eraser) is just taking his cues from the effort level of his star, who can barely bring himself to make eye contact with Christopher Meloni, aggressively (and somewhat enjoyably) overacting as our hero’s partner in vengeance.
You know Travolta is phoning it in when he only lets loose one signature hissy fit, his character blowing a gasket when the corrupt police officers investigating his wife’s murder hilariously suggest that he just wait for the punks to inevitably die of drug overdoses. Cage, similarly, does his chain-of-barking-bellows thing just once in The Trust, which casts him as a dirty Vegas cop planning a heist with a nervous fellow officer (Elijah Wood). The poster for The Trust makes the film look like another throwaway thriller designed to pay for dinosaur skulls and Bahamian islands. While it definitely is a throwaway, it’s closer to lesser Elmore Leonard than one-word cash grabs like Rage or Stolen—a small-scale crime caper animated by the personality of the actors and little comic details, such as the way Cage’s character douses lemon wedges in Tabasco sauce.
Lean and mostly likable, The Trust moves swiftly through the planning stages of the big score—chasing a money trail, going undercover as wage slaves, securing equipment—before slowing to a tense crawl once the big day arrives. Like I Am Wrath, this is a film indebted to numerous others, but upstart directors Alex and Benjamin Brewer are smart enough to play to the strengths of their cast. What they’ve concocted, largely, is a two-man show, with Wood as increasingly frazzled straight man to Cage, whose goofy, dad-joke energy clashes—in that distinctly Leonard way—with his cold-blooded behavior. It’s not one of the latter’s great performances, but it’s still a reservoir of personality at the center of a movie that benefits from every drop of it. And when it comes to the disposable VOD fare that Cage and Travolta have made a side career out of indiscriminately embracing, minor pleasures are a major improvement.