There’s a sense that Nicolas Cage is very happy in his work. Just look at the fun he had on the set of Ghost Rider, taking breaks to view the dailies and laugh at his own maniacal image. The prolific actor seems motivated by a need to do cool stuff, whether that’s buying dinosaur skulls and European castles or going headlong into just about every genre you can think of, from action and drama to war, horror and even romance.
Without that stimulation, Cage says, he would be like a ‘hyperactive Doberman’. Yet this self-deprecation belies an actor who’s passionately earnest about his craft, describing his brain and body as his ‘instrument’. This would sound terribly pompous coming from anyone else, but with Cage it doesn’t, such is his affable sincerity. This curious mix of dramatic conviction and electric idiosyncrasy has seen the 57-year-old actor create his very old sub genre – ‘Cage Rage’.
Cage did not seek the memedom of ‘Cage Rage’. In fact, the actor is ‘frustrated’ by the label at times. Yet he recognises that it is summation of his ‘punk rock’ sensibility, which has caused him to explore his ‘abstract’ and ‘ontological’ notions of film performance, no matter how wild or even trashy the results may be. Willy’s Wonderland is the latest entry in this canon, and you can imagine how the phone call went with his agent, “I get to smash up psychopathic animatrons? I’m in!” Indeed, Cage is not the only one who’s ‘in’. The promise of ‘Cage Rage’ and high concept silliness has stirred plenty of interest, but does it deliver on this cultish hype? Well, yes and no.
It begins with badass self-parody as Cage emerges from a Chevy Camaro sporting shades, a grimace, and an overly manicured strip of facial hair. He finds that road spikes have burst his tyres, so he cracks open a can of ‘punch’ and waits for help to arrive. Soon, unable to use his credit card with a rural mechanic, Cage is taken to a wily cowboy named Tex Macadoo, who offers him work cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a theme park that’s fallen on hard times.
It doesn’t take long for shit to get real. One by one, animatronic characters come alive and pick a fight with Cage, who responds by destroying them with swift fury and a certain amount of pleasure, evidenced by a sadistic smile as he kicks a mechanical gorilla’s head in. It is during these fight scenes that Cage’s character – the ‘Janitor’ – makes his few and only sounds. Outside of the occasional ‘ARGH!’, the Janitor remains entirely and inexplicably silent.
As Cage continues to clean, kill and take timed breaks to drink ‘punch’ and play pinball, a teenage crew enters the building armed with bolt cutters and jerry cans. Led by Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta), their mission is to destroy the animatrons once and for all, ending their reign of terror in the local community. In a scene of pure, unadulterated exposition, Liv explains to the Janitor that Willy’s Wonderland was the brainchild of Jerry Robert Willis, ‘one of the last century’s most sick and sadistic serial killers’. He and a group of other sickos performed a satanic suicide ritual that transferred their malignant souls into the animatrons, with Willis’s soul manifesting in the fluffy orange body of Willy the Weasel. Yes, it’s the silliest premise in recent memory.
With exposition out the way, Cage proceeds to punch, kick and decapitate his way through the building, splashing oil and mechanical offal all over the place. That may sound fun, but even at 89 minutes, director Kevin Lewis struggles to maintain the energy of G.O. Parsons’ threadbare script, which presents the shallowest of high concepts will little to support it. However, Nicolas Cage and the effects team manage to bring it to life, in what will become a quirky if minor footnote in Cage’s career