Retrophisch Review: Dying of the Light

There are some roles which actors are born to play. There are some actors for whom roles are specifically written. Then there are those actors who perfectly fit a role you might not think before seeing them in said role would be that perfect fit. Nicholas Cage certainly fills this latter category in Dying of the Light. Dying of the Light poster

I came across this 2014 film, billed as a psychological thriller, while channel surfing. It was about fifteen minutes in, but my TiVo still had those previous fifteen minutes, the description sounded interesting, so I hit record to make sure I got the whole thing, and started from the beginning. While the film has some slow parts, which seems to be such to stretch out the running time to 90 minutes more than anything else, all in all I enjoyed it.

Cage is Evan Lake, a longtime and highly decorated CIA agent. We are introduced to him as he has a flashback to a covert operation in Africa where is captured and tortured by an Islamic terrorist, Muhammad Banir. Among the other tortures, Lake has part of an ear mutilated. An extraction team intervenes before he can be killed, killing several of the terrorists, presumably including Banir. Lake doesn’t believe Banir is dead, and carries this belief with him while he continues working in the Agency for another 22 years. Just as the CIA is made aware of the possibility that Banir may be still alive, Lake learns he has frontotemporal dementia, the side effects of which…well, let’s just say they play perfectly into Nic Cage’s acting abilities and the type of roles he is more well known for.

Milton Schultz, aptly played by Anton Yelchin, is an analyst for the CIA who is a close friend of Lake’s. There is clearly a teacher-protege relationship going on, and Milt is quite fond of Lake. That fondness grows into protection as Lake reveals his condition to Milt. Due to the onset of the dementia, Lake is forcibly retired from the CIA, but with Milt’s help, undergoes one last mission to take out Banir in Africa.

The film’s production value reminded me of Cinemax’s Strike Back series, of which I’m a fan. It’s not big budget, but it gets the job done. The film itself is not without controversy, in that the studio re-edited and scored the film without writer/director Paul Schrader’s permission or input. Cage and Yelchin stood by Schrader in disavowing the finished film, and given the slow and disjointed points in the movie, I can understand why. When as a creative individual you put effort into a project, a project for which you have a distinct vision, and that is taken away from you while you have no legal recourse, well, I can understand Schrader’s frustration. He would go on to recut the movie to as close as possible to his original vision from DVD copies of the workprint. That version of the film, which he called Dark, can presumably be found on BitTorrent sites.

I do not plan to hunt that down, as I do not think it would greatly change my overall impression of the film, nor elevate what I believe is its greatest strength: the relationship between Lake and Milt.

In a world where masculine friendship and filial love has been minimized, it was refreshing to watch one friend go to the lengths Milton does to help someone he cares about, admires, and loves. Time and again, Milt makes sacrifices great and small for Lake, doing what he can to help his mentor fulfill his final mission. The conversations between the two of them are the glue of the film, and the scenes I enjoyed most.

Dying of the Light can be a little slow, it won’t be for everyone, and I was never on the edge of my seat as with some thrillers. But it makes up for its downsides with a story of friendship, sacrifice, and love that I found compelling enough to recommend it for that part of the plot.

3/5 fins


In all Hollywood thrillers, there’s a certain suspension of belief the audience is expected to give. And in every movie, there are gaffes, missteps, and mistakes. But the one scene in The Bourne Identity that has always, and continues, with subsequent viewings, to bother me, is the one at the farmhouse, the confrontation between Jason Bourne and Clive Owen’s character, the Professor.

The plot points us to the Professor being one of Bourne’s equals. They’re both from the Treadstone project. They’re both “super weapons” of a kind. They’re both highly trained, and highly skilled. When Eamon’s dog is missing, and Jason realizes a killer is out there waiting for him, he does what we expect him to do: take the fight to the killer. It’s here the writers take the easy way out.

If the Professor was as highly skilled and as highly trained as we’ve been led to believe up to this point Treadstone agents are, he would never do the following:

  1. Give up the high ground.
  2. Give up the quiet shooting ability of the suppressor on his SIG 55x rifle.
  3. Give up the superior range and firepower of the SIG 55x rifle for a backup pistol.

Jason doesn’t know the Professor’s location. Given the layout of the farmhouse and the surrounding area, he suspects, but he doesn’t know. When he runs out into the trees from the farmhouse, the Professor attempts a shot, and after missing, decides to come down from his perch on the hill? Why give up the high ground, and the sun behind you? Your target is still below you, still within range, just hidden in the trees. Shift your position, attempt to reacquire, but you DON’T COME DOWN FROM ON HIGH.

And as he gives up the high ground, he simultaneously gives up sound suppression on a firearm? Jason Bourne may be the best Treadstone produced, but he still wouldn’t be able to track the shots by sound, even if he suspected the Professor’s hide at the top of the hill. Not at that range.

Finally, after coming down from the hill, the Professor inexplicably takes the only sighting device on the rifle off—why no iron sight backups? He then decides, as the birds Jason sent into flight with a shotgun blast whirl noisily about, to put down the weapon that could reach to any edge of the big clearing they’re in, and take up a small pistol with a more limited range and fewer available rounds.

I just can’t buy it. The film’s technical advisor(s) really let the production down in this area, and allowed the writers a cheap and easy way out to put down the other Treadstone agent on Jason’s trail. Way, way easier than it should have been. At least Castel lost a straight-up, one-on-one fight with Bourne. It is, for me, a thoroughly disappointing scene in an otherwise enjoyable (if imperfect) action thriller.

In the interests of full disclosure: the soundtrack for this film was the soundtrack of my life in the 1980s. I was a closet metalhead–closet only in the sense that I didn’t have long hair and wasn’t allowed to go to the rock shows by my Southern Baptist-raised mother. These songs are the songs of my formative teenage years, and I was already biased toward liking this movie before I sat down in the theater to view it. So fellow ‘80s rockers whose iPods and iPhones hold Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, The Scorpions, Guns N’Roses, and the like, you’re going to love this movie, despite its myriad shortcomings.

Oh, and shortcomings it has. For one: how do you leave out Motley Crüe from the soundtrack? Talk about your quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band. There’s not even a cut from the Crüe in the original musical. Granted, Rock of Ages is, despite its full-on ’80s rock ensemble, a love story. And Motley Crüe didn’t make their bones belting out power ballads. Now it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, given Motley Crüe’s years-ago split-up, then later reformation, that there may have been some legal wrangling that proved too costly. Or maybe, being the quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band, the Crüe simply didn’t want their tracks being associated with a Broadway musical and its film spinoff.

One shortcoming which will come as no surprise: the plot’s really thin. The entire reason there’s even a plot is to give us reasons to have these songs performed. I’m sure if you took the original music videos for these songs, or video of their best live performances, strung them together one after another, and released that to theaters, we ’80s rockers would be just as apt to shell out our ten bucks each to sit down and enjoy that hour and a half. One will note that Rock of Ages’s running time is just a hair over two hours, which tells you there’s about 30 minutes of nearly useless, music-less filler to slog through.

Casting: whew, we could be here awhile in this regard. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Alec Baldwin is amusing in his role as Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree, but you could easily interchange him with any number of actors. Malin Akerman is pure eye candy as a reporter from Rolling Stone. Really? A swimsuit cover model type cast as a reporter from Rolling Stone? The other supporting roles are as equally interchangeable among the Hollywood glitterati as Baldwin’s.

Julianne Hough is endearing as Sherrie, and we all know she can sing. (All the actors did their own singing, painfully obvious in a line of one song where Baldwin chimes in.) Mary J. Blige as Justice, the owner of The Venus Club, is a treat, and you want to hear more of her covering Pat Benatar and Quarterflash than to put up with another round of anything from Diego Boneta. My feelings regarding the lead casting of Boneta as Drew are best summed up by this line from Tom Santilli in his Examiner review (read after I saw the film):

He seems more suited for musical theater, which I guess this is, but he just seems like the kind of guy Stacee Jaxx would have beaten up in high school.

And speaking of Stacee Jaxx, this leads us to Tom Cruise. Like many, when I saw Cruise was taking the role of the fictional rock legend, I had serious doubts he could pull it off. And while I don’t think his singing voice is quite right for certain numbers (“Paradise City”, most notably), he sings well enough to indeed pull it off. I’ll also give Cruise points for giving an appropriately dark performace as a rock god who’s having trouble accepting his place in music history, and not knowing where to go next. I got the feeling he was channeling Axl Rose as the latter dealt with his own issues following Guns N’Roses’ ascendance from overnight success to rock institution.

There’s a lot to ding Rock of Ages for, but all in all, it’s a fun movie. And if the soundtrack of your life was like mine during that time period, you may find yourself wanting to go see it again.