Few filmmakers of late have seemed less willing to go gentle into that good night than Paul Schrader: No stranger to clashing with others over creative differences, the writer-director made headlines months ago by parting ways with the producers of “Dying of the Light,” his moody espionage thriller about a terminally ill CIA operative in pursuit of an old enemy, as well as a noble end to his three-decade career. The film maudit that has emerged bearing Schrader’s name — although edited without his input or approval, and disavowed by him and many of the key talents involved — is a weirdly misshapen, fitfully intriguing depiction of one man’s wayward quest for justice, plainly compromised in ways that only a director’s cut could properly illuminate. With even Nicolas Cage’s trademark bizarro tics straitjacketed by the editorial patch-up job, this fanfare-free Lionsgate release looks to fade much more quietly into the ether than its director will.
Contractually barred from criticizing the finished product, Schrader, actors Cage and Anton Yelchin, and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn staged a silent online protest in October, appearing in photos wearing “non-disparagement” T-shirts that featured the phrase “I have no comment on the film or others connected with the picture.” Whatever it was once supposed to be, this secondhand version of “Dying of the Light” can’t help but feel like a jaundiced commentary on the troubled circumstances of its own making, with Cage effectively cast as Schrader’s stand-in: an embattled, world-weary pro who, betrayed by the institution for which he sacrificed so much of himself, heads out into the cold to secure retribution on his own terms.
It begins with an awkwardly placed flashback (to which the film will return periodically throughout) to a violent hostage situation involving undercover CIA operative Evan Lake (Cage) and his leering captor, an Islamic terrorist named Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim). Lake was rescued and Banir presumed dead in the aftermath, but 22 years later, our graying, highly decorated hero still bears the scars of that encounter — a mutilated ear, and the dogged, haunting certainty that his old nemesis is still alive, if not necessarily well: Banir, it turns out, suffered from a rare and deadly hereditary blood disease.
When Lake’s smart young protege, Milton (Yelchin), receives evidence suggesting that Banir has been demanding experimental treatment from a doctor in Bucharest (which is located in Romania, as the thudding onscreen titles never tire of reminding us), it seems that justice, or something like it, might finally be within reach. Unfortunately, Lake’s higher-ups would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, and not long after the Agency forces him into retirement, he decides to track down Banir on his own, albeit with Milton’s loyal help. In the sort of cruel irony that only a screenwriter could devise, Lake himself is soon diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a brain condition even more aggressively debilitating than Alzheimer’s.
And so we follow Lake and Milton travel from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to Bucharest (again, Romania), where they connect with one of Luke’s old associates (Irene Jacob); and finally to Mombasa, Kenya, where Banir has gone into hiding (each new location shot with exacting crispness and a slick digital polish by d.p. Gabriel Kosuth). As it progresses, this globe-trotting procedural narrows in focus, homing in on the more intimate drama of one dying man pursuing another. This is a movie about death on any number of levels, including the death of one’s most cherished ideals; at the fateful reunion that inevitably awaits them, both men will acknowledge the futility of the extremes to which they’ve dedicated too much of their lives.
That’s particularly true of Lake, whom we see early on giving some fresh-faced CIA recruits a lofty pep talk, pumped up with rhetoric but little conviction; not much later, he’s railing with startling bitterness against the ineffectual joke the Agency has become. In these moments, you can sense the film struggling to articulate, through Lake’s words, a sense of an America that has lost its way and fatally compromised its values. But those sentiments never really spring to life in Cage’s grimly dyspeptic performance, which is hard to take seriously (the fake-looking aging effects don’t help), yet scarcely ridiculous enough to qualify as an outright hoot. The actor has given great, memorable performances in recent years, most notably in the wildly unhinged “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and last year’s accomplished “Joe,” but his portrait of single-minded obsession and gradual mental breakdown has nowhere near the same impact.
Yelchin makes an odd but welcome presence as the faithful sidekick, speaking in a curiously low rasp that suggests he’s 20 years older than he really is, while Karim, who ages somewhat more gracefully than Cage does, ably invests his sickly villain with equal parts vulnerability and highly eloquent menace. The sad final reckoning between Lake and Banir has a certain undeniable fascination, even if it ultimately resolves itself with the sort of garishly choreographed violence that erupts throughout the picture at regular intervals, often accompanied by Frederik Wiedmann’s wannabe-pulse-pounding score. Yet the only real tension you feel in “Dying of the Light” is that between the thoughtful, tough-minded character piece Schrader presumably thought he was making and the bruised, indifferent hackwork that has ultimately made it to the screen.