Making the first of an expected six film appearances in 2016 alone, the ever-prolific, never-selective Nicolas Cage at least seems to be enjoying himself more than usual in “The Trust,” a thinly conceived but juicily played heist thriller directed by the sibling team of Alex and Ben Brewer. Cast as a dirty, downright Mephistophelian cop teaming up with a reluctant younger officer (an effective Elijah Wood), Cage supplies a stream of tension-defusing laughs while the script steadily applies the screws, but this disposable exercise in comic nihilism offers only a modest payoff at best. Commercial returns look similarly slim, though Cage completists may be heartened to see a vehicle with even this much life pulsing through its veins; the pic will stream exclusively on DirecTV starting April 14 before rolling out May 13 in theaters and on VOD.
A crosscutting sequence introduces two cops, Stone (Cage) and Waters (Wood), who work in the evidence room of the Las Vegas Police Department. Mired in laziness, corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, the two lead lives as parched and empty as the desert sands, as signaled by the dead-eyed look in Waters’ eyes as a prostitute grinds away on top of him. Stone, however, shows a bit more gumption, and when he learns that a heroin dealer has met his $200,000 bail in suspiciously quick fashion, he presses Waters to help him figure out how such a large quantity of cash could have been moved so quickly. Asked why, he replies succinctly, “I truly have nothing better to do and I despise my job.”
Cage’s performance has no shortage of similar deadpan witticisms, which he tosses off with the transparent pleasure and look-at-me abandon of someone riffing explicitly on his own persona, and availing himself of dialogue that could scarcely have been written with another performer in mind. The result isn’t anywhere near the level of his last great performance — also as a detective of questionable motivation and sanity — in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” But the actor is limited here by a script (written by Ben Brewer and Adam Hirsch) that never runs the risk of going too deep or flying too crazily off the rails as it tends to its brisk and busy narrative machinery.
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After some highly off-the-books police work — tailing the dealer on the subway, going undercover at a hotel, snooping around a grocery store — our two non-heroes realize they’ve tailed the missing contraband (and much, much more of it) to an enormous underground safe, concealed somewhere beneath an apartment building. And so they begin making plans to penetrate the vault, a difficult job that will require Stone to consult some experts abroad while Waters maps out a life-sized floor plan. Of course, even the most carefully calculated scheme can be counted on to go haywire, and so it does here, with unexpectedly human consequences, in a heist sequence that, while not exactly “Rififi,” becomes steadily absorbing as it consumes much of the film’s second half.
The Brewer brothers have a respectable calling card on their hands; they have a solid grasp of tension building, and they handle the film’s necessary quota of gruesome violence with an appreciably light touch. Here and there they show a fashionable fluency with long takes — an early sequence in which a suspect’s near-escape unfolds in the background, a gripping final shot that keeps the camera in perilous motion — that lends the production a bit more cinematic heft than much VOD-ready genre fare. But neither their visual flair nor their stylish way with music can overcome the fundamental hollowness of their material, or their habit of treating their supporting characters in pretty perfunctory terms: Jerry Lewis gets a particularly pointless cameo as Stone’s father, while Sky Ferreira does what she can as a young woman caught in the crossfire.
That nagging incuriosity about its own characters would matter less, perhaps, if “The Trust” were a committed two-hander, but Cage’s performance, showily entertaining though it is, feels more like a quasi-Brechtian gimmick than a convincing embodiment of go-for-broke villainy. Perhaps that’s why it’s Wood’s quieter, more agitated turn that ultimately leaves the deeper impression; he’s not showing us anything new when he’s backed into a corner with his weapon at the ready, but for a moment, at least, he gives us something to believe in.