Nearly two years after cameras rolled in New Orleans on “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” the Nicolas Cage-starring vigilante thriller, now retitled “Justice,” has started to hit theaters in Europe and Hong Kong. It has not been worth the wait: This unconvincing, workmanlike genre piece reps a considerable dip in quality for director Roger Donaldson after his 2008 heist pic “The Bank Job.” With no release date yet for the U.S., where its title is “Seeking Justice,” ancillary reps the pic’s best chance for modest recoupment.
Positioned in Blighty as counterprogramming to “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1,” the pic earned just £183,000 ($293,000) from 244 cinemas in its first two days, indicating a swift exit from theaters.
In the recent “The Next Three Days,” audiences rooted for Russell Crowe’s English teacher to acquire an unlikely skill set and bust his wife out of prison. “Justice” attempts a similar trick, casting Cage as nice-guy English teacher Will Gerard, comfortably decked out in corduroy trousers and spectacles. When his musician wife, Laura (January Jones), is brutally raped, Will feels his own powerlessness. Enter shaven-headed, sharp-suited Simon (Guy Pearce), who offers street justice for the crime in exchange for a future favor of vaguely modest proportions. The rapist is then summarily executed.
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Simon is as good as his word when he later asks Will to perform some routine surveillance on a man he claims is a pedophile. But the stakes rise when he demands that Will murder the suspect in question. In a contrived passage, Will finds himself implicated in the death of a local newspaper reporter, held for police interrogation and then freed by a rogue cop when he reveals his knowledge of the vigilante network’s code phrase, “The hungry rabbit jumps.” Of course, it turns out he was better off in custody.
Despite a two-part climax, starting with a monster truck rally at the New Orleans Superdome, then relocating to the abandoned New Orleans Center shopping mall, “Justice” lacks the consistent thrills that might encourage the audience to indulge its numerous implausibilities. In another questionable choice of roles, Cage is unpersuasive as an inner-city schoolteacher, a part that gives him little leeway to explore the loopier shades that were showcased so entertainingly in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “Kick-Ass.”
As Will’s friend and colleague, gifted thesp Harold Perrineau isn’t given much to work with, and Pearce (drafted close to the shoot start date) doesn’t make sense of the shadowy Simon character, whose motivation remains obscure, partly because the p.o.v. remains almost exclusively with the protag. One particularly troubling aspect of the film is its ambivalent perspective on vigilante action, disapproving more of its corrupt execution than its essence.
Lenser David Tattersall uses compact digital cameras to capture a real flavor of post-Katrina New Orleans, but any such verisimilitude seems wasted on the screenplay credited to Robert Tannen and Yuri Zeltser (working from a story by Tannen and cinematographer Todd Hickey), though given the extended period of post-production, what resemblance the finished film bears to their original conception is anyone’s guess. Inclusion of scenes at the city’s newspaper, police department and an urban high school suggests an ambition to offer texture and flavor along the lines of “The Wire,” clearly an optimistic goal.