Steven C. Miller’s Arsenal begins as a straightforward film dealing with the concrete-thick bond between brothers and ends up as one of the more unintentionally funny films I’ve seen in a long time.
The fact this happens right as Nicolas Cage’s performance as Mississippi bayou low-life mobster Eddie King begins to take hold of the film should come as no surprise. Seemingly impertinent to criticism and embracing his now decade-long choices of unwieldy, half crazed and buoyantly energetic on-screen personas, this one is very close to his best (or worst, depending on how one looks at it).
But, before going there, Arsenal assembles a loose plot of revenge, kidnapping, extortion and bloody beatings that sees innocent and successful businessman J.P. (Adrian Grenier) become absorbed in helping his deadbeat older brother, Mikey (Johnathon Schaech). shake off his extraneous criminal ties. Basically, it’s filler for the in-between times Cage is not on screen.
The brothers’ disparate paths in life are established from the outset in a brief prologue as young Mikey and J.P. are forced to fend for themselves after their uncle commits suicide. That Mikey gravitates towards the protection and menial jobs of mobster King (Nicolas Cage) after witnessing him commit murder, while the wide-eyed J.P. takes over his older brother’s lawn mowing business and eventually turns it into a money-making construction business 23 years later is just one of the simple ideas Arsenal blithely cruises over in quick succession.
Their diametric lifestyles are shown further as grown men. While J.P. enjoys the labors of his business with a happy home, loving wife and new baby, Mikey can’t make his child support payments to his ex-wife (Heather Johanson), even as his teen daughter (Abbie Gayle) becomes mixed up with the wrong crowd. The only happy times the brothers seem to share are watching minor league baseball games… which of course end up with Mikey punching out a heckler behind him.
Mikey digs himself into a hole even further when he uses money borrowed from J.P. to buy and resell cocaine, which he promptly has stolen from him. On the edge of alcoholism and desperation, Mikey runs into old boss and former mentor King at a bar one night and the mechanisms of a larger crime scheme comes into focus. What Mikey didn’t count on, though, is the extent his younger brother would be involved. The growth of Adrian Grenier as a shotgun-toting Superman is now upon us.
It’s hard to fault Arsenal for not being a complex examination of brotherhood. Or even good art. Obviously, based on director Miller’s previous forays into action cinema like Marauders (2016) and Extraction (2015), his inspirations and purpose lay in the direct to video ‘badness’ of Steven Seagal and filmmaker Albert Pyun (look up this guy’s stuff for some fun).
The added layer of Nicolas Cage, made up in fake nose, dark sunglasses and an accent that oscillates between creole and Northeastern, further exacerbates the film’s obvious ploy for z-grade attraction. And did I mention John Cusack plays an undercover cop who guides J.P. along in the hunt for his brother? Perhaps that’s where the film’s alternate title of “Philly Fury” comes into play?
Still, one can hope for some sort of originality or inventiveness. Instead, Arsenal frames its relentless beatings doled out by Nicolas Cage against slow-motion effects and a melancholic hymnal of sorts. Allusions to The Matrix and its slow-mo-bullet scenes are displayed for the climactic shoot-out. And gestures of simple bonding between people are experienced in over-the-top shouting matches at July 4th dinners and the mantra that all this has to happen because “he’s my brother.”
Perhaps the best way to view Arsenal is through the lens of guilty pleasure. Or just chalk it up to the doldrums of the January dumping-ground release season. Either way, I suspect the film will find the right audience.
Arsenal opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, January 6 at the AMC Mesquite 30 and will be available on VOD platforms the same day.