Sympathy for the Devil rehearses a familiar thriller conceit that is unsurprising from the outset. It opens with the affable everyman protagonist, the Driver (Joel Kinnaman), speeding to the hospital where his wife is in labor. The film wastes no time swerving into its primary conflict: as the Driver pulls into the hospital parking lot, the criminal Passenger (Nicolas Cage) enters his car and forces him at gunpoint to drive away. The plot is instantly propelled by a series of questions: who is this Passenger? What does he want? Why did he decide to take this man hostage? Where are the two men going?
Directed by Yuval Adler, Sympathy for the Devil does not transcend its genre confines, especially given that its conceit so loudly recalls the likes of hard-to-beat films like Michael Mann’s superb Collateral (2004). Unfortunately, Sympathy’s series of power negotiation scenarios between Driver and Passenger are a little too familiar, ultimately flattening its aspirations of suspense. A tension-killing sense of trope recitation persists throughout — this sense undergirds the scene when the Driver and Passenger are pulled over by a nosy police officer, and it continues whenever the Driver and Passenger encounter other bystanders or engage in dangerous psychological games between themselves. The plot is a conveyor belt: events proceed at a regular and unsurprising clip, and exchanges between the two lead players are frequently laden with the burden of genre familiarity.
Where the film succeeds is in providing a vehicle for Cage’s singular artistry. Donning a thick goatee, dyed red hair, and matching suit jacket, the actor offers one of his highly stylized trademark performances, almost kabuki in its baroque expressionism. In his interpretation of this deadly trickster imp, Cage invokes some of his own memorable past villain characterizations — when he imitates Edward G. Robinson’s clipped gangster line deliveries, he echoes his own Bogart routine in Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog (2016); his manic explosions of fury and hilarity recall his work in Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death (1995), John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).
Indeed, Sympathy for the Devil works best when viewed purely as a vehicle (no pun intended) for Cage. The movie’s highlight is a protracted roadside diner sequence tailormade for the actor’s virtuosic expressions of madness. Beginning with the Passenger’s objection to the laminated menu’s no substitutions clause, the scene continues building with the crimson-headed crook’s anger, at one point segueing into his deranged singalong performance to Alicia Bridges’ jukebox classic, “I Love the Nightlife.” The scene is an exemplary demonstration of Cage’s unique aptitude for manipulating tone. As with many of his previous characters, the star reinterprets this role to accommodate his singularly mesmerizing and often experimental dramatic approach. He transforms the film’s sometimes tiringly conventional cat-and-mouse plot into episodes of sinister madcap comedy, resuscitating the tepid central conceit whenever he is onscreen (and thankfully, he is onscreen throughout most of the film).
Cage is an actor like no other. He harnesses a genre royalty presence akin to, say, James Cagney’s or Bela Lugosi’s, but he also offers consistently novel characterizations that complicate and multiply that status: the live-wire energy he brings to Sympathy for the Devil is vintage Cage, yes, but he is also the performer responsible for stoic verisimilitude in the likes of Bangkok Dangerous (2008) and Pig (2021), charming relatability in The Family Man (2000) and Knowing (2009), and comic abstraction in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Zandalee (1991), and Deadfall (1993). Like the oeuvre of a genre-hopping writer with a distinct prose style, Cage’s body of work is infused with something constant and innate: a pure, genuine, inimitable artistic voice. As the latest entry in that enormous and diverse filmography, Sympathy for the Devil is required viewing for Cage enthusiasts. Count me among them.
DIRECTOR: Yuval Adler; CAST: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman, Kaiwi Lyman; DISTRIBUTOR: RLJE Films; IN THEATERS: July 28; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.