Nicolas Cage has become something of a meme in recent years. An Academy Award-winning actor who was a household name in the ’90s, but these days usually comes at us with over-the-top performances in movies no one’s really watching. Well, until last year’s crazy horror-thriller Mandy, which made cinephiles stand up and take notice again. He followed Mandy with a memorable performance voicing the monochromed Spider-Man Noir in the insanely popular Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Perhaps we were witnessing a new age of Cage in the making, one focused less on cash-grab direct-to-video action thrillers?
In A Score to Settle, Cage tries to keep his mini-streak going, but this may not be the one the people were looking for. He plays Frank Carver, a prisoner released early from a life sentence after a long 19 years because of health issues. When he went to jail, he left behind a son, Joey (Noah Le Gros), now back in his life, even though he blames his father for a lot of his own issues, including his drug addiction. Frank wants nothing more than to make up for lost time with his son. You wouldn’t think Frank was an angry person, but he’s understandably upset, having lost 19 years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit. He worked for a gang of criminals, and agreed to take the rap for a murder committed by his boss. Joey wants him to forget about it, but Frank wants blood, hunting down his ex-associates with every intention of killing them.
Directed by Shawn Ku (The American Mall, Beautiful Boy) from a screenplay by John Stuart Newman (Proud Mary), A Score to Settle clearly wants to be a cut above the usual direct-to-video action fare, but often settles (no pun intended) for mere adequacy. The script feels a few revisions short of where we expect a theatrical release to be. In truth, the story does have some interesting ideas, but the dialogue is severely overwritten with characters responding to each other even when they don’t need to. I don’t mind realistic dialogue, but at some point there needs to be a more creative way to say things other than how we usually hear them in everyday life. We hear everyone’s thoughts until there’s nothing left to read into. No subtext is left unexpressed.
A Score to Settle has one of those plots that peels back layers slowly as it goes. However, what’s being kept hidden only draws our attention to it even more, causing us think there are holes in the plot. For a long stretch we’re under the assumption the film is fundamentally flawed, only to learn that a giant twist will appear and somehow make all these things make sense. Perhaps that, alone, is evidence that this film is fundamentally flawed after all.
Twists are tricky things to manage. You need the story to be able to function adequately without them, yet at the same time not give away too much before the Big Reveal. During A Score to Settle, we know something is up because we’re not getting all the facts right away. These omissions, in turn, only makes us question whether these characters have any clue how to make logical decisions, or whether there’s going to be a last-minute twist justifying everything.
There’s not enough to validate the former, so we just sit there waiting for the latter, our hair hurting in frustration. Fortunately, director Shawn Ku does a pretty good job with the derivative premise, keeping us engaged. He earns our investment fairly well, though building up intensity becomes an issue when the dialogue, paired with certain performances, distracts us from it.
Although the revenge premise isn’t anything original, especially by today’s post-John Wick standards, we’re still entertained enough by Cage’s unique presence that we want to know what happens next. He’s good enough in this movie where you can tell he would have been more productive with more refined material. He does have one or two of his trademarked freak-outs, but for the most part walks the line between calm and neurotic, channeling his inner Ben Sanderson.
The movie is peppered with a few catchy, little-known acoustic songs that will be the obvious highlight for many viewers. Get past the messy script and the several inherent problems, and A Score to Settle has its moments and can be a decent popcorn flick to watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon. It’s not quite a classic Nicolas Cage performance, but longtime fans are bound to spot a few glimpses of the absurdity they crave from one of Hollywood’s most eccentrically entertaining performers still eager for a paycheck. After all, castles don’t pay for themselves.
Originally published at https://www.popzara.com/movies/vod-reviews/a-score-to-settle-2019/