Arsenal is the kind of dirty southern crime thriller that you don’t see much of anymore. To see it unfold is to step knee-deep into the mounting problems of a person you’ve never met, watching helplessly as those closest to them take extreme measures to keep them safe. It’s a perpetual empathy machine soaked in blood and anchored by strong performances, but the story is just a bit too familiar for its own good.
Steven C. Miller’s second film in a year, following last summer’s bank heist thriller Marauders, tells the story of two brothers (Adrian Grenier and Johnathon Schaech) who grew up poor in the rundown streets of Biloxi, Mississippi. One brother built a good life for himself and is now running a successful construction business. The other is a low level criminal who has spent the majority of his adult life doing jobs for a local crime boss (Nicolas Cage). When the troubled brother finds himself owing a debt to his boss that cannot be repaid his only chance for survival is his younger, clean cut sibling swooping in to save the day.
Grenier does well as the emotional anchor of the film, not to mention the person with the most screen time, but in the end it is Nicolas Cage who serves as Arsenal’s biggest attraction. His work as Eddie is done entirely behind pitch black sunglasses, a Groucho Marx nose (typically filled with cocaine), and a wig that is the furthest thing from believable, but even those items are not enough to match the bravado in Cage’s performance. The best filmmakers know how keep the veteran actor’s penchant for going all out in check. Miller, unfortunately, is not yet at that level. He allows Cage to run wild and captures everything that happens with religious dedication.
Miller’s other shortcoming stems from his clear passion for making every bit of gritty violence play out like an opera. The film grinds to a halt several times so that we can see every punch, kick, and bullet move in crystal clear slow motion that, while beautiful, completely breaks from the tone and pacing of the film. Adding to the distraction that this creates is the repeated use of church music, including “Hallelujah,” as an accompaniment. These sequences are elaborate for the sake of being elaborate in a movie that otherwise prides itself on being a filthy and relatively straightforward piece of bullet-riddled entertainment. It just doesn’t make sense.
The cast does their best to get things back on track just as soon as violence ends, including the ever-fantastic John Cusack in a bit role as a plain clothes detective, but the damage is done. Arsenal is consistently good without coming close to achieving greatness in any form. I forgot most of what happened in the earlier moments of the film by the time the credits began to roll, and I am certain the rest will fall out of my mind shortly after this review goes live, but for a brief moment there—in between the rants from Nicolas Cage and the gratuitous celebration of physical violence that is his character’s way of life—I had fun.