Written by John Stuart Newman
Directed by Shawn Ku
Starring Nicolas Cage, Benjamin Bratt and Noah Le Gros
Running time: 1 hour and 43 minutes
by Hunter Bush
I've loved movies for what feels like my whole life but I've only been writing about them (for anyone other than myself) for a short time. In that time, I've had a few "high points": mother! - my first pre-release review; Boom For Real - my first screener link; being able to see things like the last two Avengers flicks or even Solo, that nerds like me were salivating for, a week in advance; and now A Score to Settle - my first time screening a Nicolas Cage film!
I wish it were a great film, I really do. And I'll take any definition of "great". As an unironic fan of Cage's, of course I hoped for the best. Maybe a late-career companion to Cage's Leaving Las Vegas that would earn him award attention, if not another golden naked man paperweight (he was last nominated in 2003 for Adaptation). But I'd happily have settled for something along the lines of what made me fall in love with him in the first place; the holy trinity of 90's big dumb action: The Rock, Con Air & Face/Off.
The trailer for A Score to Settle seemed to walk the line between these two particular aspects of Cage's oeuvre. Telling the story of a man with a terminal disease released from prison after almost 20 years who wants both to reconnect with his estranged son AND ALSO get bloody revenge on those who put him away. The trailer unironically uses the "Academy Award Winner Nicolas Cage" credit 40 seconds after footage of Cage blowing someone's brains out in a butcher's shop. Should I have taken this a bad omen? Absolutely, but if I let myself pass on the opportunity to review a Nic Cage movie, any Nic Cage movie, I'd regret it forever.
As I said above, I love Cage without any irony. Growing up on those three over-the-top action classics, he's always felt like an actor I could trust. If Nic Cage was in something, it was on my radar. Whether he is objectively "good" in something or not, he has never failed to, at the very least, hold my interest, if not entertain me out right. Has he done bad movies? You know it! But he makes them watchable; enjoyable. In recent years, he's become a punchline for his willingness to take on seemingly any project, but that fearless (some would say desperate) streak has lead to one of the more varied leading man careers.
For every bland USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, there's a future movie-night staple like Mandy or Mom and Dad. So where does A Score to Settle fall on the spectrum of Cage's career?
I will say out front that there is a good movie here, but this isn’t it. Someone could have made a genuinely enjoyable flick from everything A Score to Settle brings to the table, but I think writer John Stewart Newman and director Shawn Ku both mishandled their respective ends of things. The dialogue strays too easily into cliché and unsubtle repetition of themes (multiple people early in the film say the phrase "The world has changed since your day, old man" to Cage pretty much verbatim) but in fairness, the performances help with most of that. The, at times tense, at times easy, banter between Frank and his adult son Joey (Noah Le Gros) felt real even around the stiffer bits of dialogue.
Newman & Ku both fumble over the fatal condition Frank suffers from: Sporadic Fatal Insomnia. We're told early in the film that it can lead to confusion, delirium, dementia and death, but it's really only visualized as an occasional blurry change in shutter-speed footage while Frank sweats and hyperventilates through a small panic attack, usually while mid-flashback. He also hallucinates his dead wife after sleeping with an escort (Karolina Wydra), and once, briefly, sees his son as a young boy instead of the grown man he's been interacting with the whole time. A bit more stylistic flourish and attention could have been paid to Frank's deteriorating mental state. Something as simple as having him set a glass down off screen, and then reach for it only to find that he'd left it across the room would add something to the film. Color would also help. Visually, there's almost nothing that stands out about the film. Everything looks drab with the exception of that very brief butcher's shop scene which is bathed in neon from the shop sign.
But those things would make the insomnia stand out in the viewer's mind and we're really not meant to remember it. It's all in the service of a truly terribly handled twist that almost never works. In truth, it's so obvious that I almost admire the guts it must have taken to present it to each successive person up the tree from concept to execution. It's so obvious that while reading this you probably guessed exactly what it is and then dismissed that thought because it's just...so... dumb. (Well you're right, but I still won't spoil it here. That's not how I do things.)
Thematically, there is a lot here. Cage seems to gravitate towards revenge flicks, at least most of the time, lately. I don't bring it up to speculate on why that may be, but to call into contrast that the themes of vengeance and what it may be worth to you as you get older are ones ripe for exploration; a deep well to drink from that A Score to Settle only sips at from time to time.
Ramping up to his vengeance streak, Frank reconnects with San Quentin, now just called Q (Benjamin Bratt) who has aged out of the criminal lifestyle into one as a successful restaurateur, helping plan his daughter's wedding. In a later scene, while Cage drunkenly plays piano and sings a pretty decent version of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", Q calls the disparity in their situations into greater focus, flat out offering to help Frank adjust to civilian life if he'll just let the past lie. But that's as much lip service as the concept gets. As the finale played out, with Frank having to decide (repeatedly, actually) where the line is between justifiable vengeance and useless violence, I felt like the time for philosophical ruminations had passed. Too little, too late.
A Score to Settle is a fatalistic movie that touches on themes of loss and regret in only the most one-dimensional ways; a scrap of paper on the surface of that deep well I mentioned. As the trailer showed, it seems caught between two worlds, unsure if it’s a prestigious drama about violence or a popcorn-y violent melodrama. The thin motivations would work better if the film took itself less seriously, but the characters are too stilted and the action a bit too exaggerated to carry a serious awards contender. As such, the movie fails to fully deliver on either front.