“Death Wish” goes the corporate route in this silly action-thriller that’s nonetheless leagues beyond Nicolas Cage’s usual fare. A miniature version of “The Parallax View” that adds a twisted variant of the ending from “Three Days of the Condor” to top things off, the screenplay posits a vigilante group in New Orleans that acts like a Ponzi scheme. Simply put, the unnamed outfit approaches the victims of crime—or their spouses or survivors—and offers to kill the perpetrator in return for a pledge to do a future “favor” for the group, most probably being a hit-person in another case.
The newest recruit to the scheme is devoted high school English teacher Will Gerard (Cage), who’s approached by smooth-talking Simon (Guy Pearce, with glistening shaved pate) after his wife Laura (January Jones), a cellist, is brutally raped after a rehearsal. After some soul-searching he accepts Simon’s proposal, and the sleazy attacker dies, an apparent suicide. Soon, however, Will is assigned to do some surveillance on a man (Jason Davis) identified as a child pornographer. But when he’s told to kill the fellow, he demurs.
What follows is a death that puts Will in the crosshairs of the police and Simon’s organization. The second half of “Seeking Justice” (originally titled “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” after the vigilantes’ recognition code) is a long chase in which Will tries desperately to find evidence of the group’s activities while avoiding the cops and Simon’s goons while protecting Laura from their clutches.
The premise of the picture isn’t terribly original—it might have served as the basis of one of those “movies of the week” television networks broadcast decades ago—but it’s interesting enough, and Pearce makes a fine mystery man, though his band of underlings, with similarly shaved heads, make a pretty ludicrous crew. And while January is pretty but bland, Cage puts more than his customary feeling into Gerard, even though the character is much less intriguing than his last New Orleans creation, the crooked cop of “Bad Lieutenant.” And during the movie’s first half, he’s actually rather interesting to watch.
As the plot degenerates into the chase, however, it loses coherence and—even with all the foot-and-car pursuits and hairs-breadth escapes—excitement and suspense. It all ends up with a particularly clumsy and implausible confrontation at the Super Dome and a derelict mall nearby, which is capped by that “Condor” finale, here given a dark turn.
One shouldn’t be too hard on “Seeking Justice.” It boasts direction by Roger Donaldson that’s professional if uninspired, cinematography by David Tattersall that uses the New Orleans locations quite well, and editing by Jay Cassidy that hits the right notes even when the action goes into absurd territory. Compared to the vast majority of Cage’s recent movies—most of them utter shlock—it’s a real advance (or return to early form). But simply on its own, it’s a thriller with a promising premise that veers off in a misguided direction before huffing and puffing its way to a loony conclusion.