There’s a certain style of storytelling in a Chinese historical film that requires Western viewers to adjust their perspective and expectations just a bit. A bit of the mythic, an exaggeration for moral and ethical effect, and battles that are always epic and heroes who stagger on and fight until the very end, pulling arrows out of their torso and daring their opponent to stick them with another sword because one wasn’t enough to stop their righteous fury.
Viewed through this lens, the new Chinese / Canadian / US production Outcast is a light, enjoyable Chinese tale of heirs fighting for the throne. The additional wrinkle in the film that makes it more interesting is that the Crusades are also woven into the story as an explanation for the presence of Western warriors in the kingdom.
The film opens up with the Europeans fighting the Saracen for an unnamed Middle Eastern city, with Christians Jacob (Hayden Christensen) and Gallain (Nicolas Cage) both making names for themselves through their courage and ferocity, but also being appalled by the senseless violence and death. Subsequent to these well-filmed action scenes, they each reject a return to the West and instead head to the Far East, to China.
A few years later in China, a family patriarch and king is dying. He tells his younger son, Mei (Ji Ke Jun) that it’s he that should inherit the crown and rule their lands. Problem is, older brother Shing (Andy On) has fought battles for the family for many years, and is convinced he should rule and become the new king when the father dies.
Mei is sent away for his safety, in the company of his sister, Princess Lian (Liu Yifei). As a military man, Shing has the loyalty of soldiers so when he puts a price on his younger brother’s head telling everyone he assassinated the King, the great manhunt begins. Fortunately, Lian and Mei meet up with Jacob (Christensen) in a bar fight where he protects them from ruffians.
During these early scenes the story is reminiscent of many great hero’s quest films and the scenery and staging of the fights and travels are reminiscent of great Chinese action films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and even American homages like Kill Bill. Jun is appealing as a headstrong young prince of 14 eager to be taken seriously by his peers, and the blossoming romance between Lian and Jacob is no surprise, but still enjoyable as a story element.
And then it all falls apart. I hate to pick on an actor, but as soon as Gallain (Cage) shows up on screen, the film stalls out and plummets to the Earth. His English accent is atrocious, the worst since Dick Van Dyke tortured a Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, and his acting is even worse. I realize he’s the big name star in the film, and the role of a brooding, tortured soldier might be a good fit, but the way the role’s written in Outcast and the way he plays it. Oh, it’s not good.
Fortunately, perhaps, he doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time and while the overall film runs out of creative energy by the time the last mano-a-mano cliché battle hits its climax, there are still things to like about Outcast. I particularly enjoyed contemplating whether any of the Christian soldiers from the Crusades would have been wracked by guilt from the horrors and atrocities of those conflicts, a nice added touch.
If you’re a fan of Chinese martial art historical dramas, a la Quentin Tarantino, then you might just find Outcast a good use of 90 minutes. If we could just edit Cage out of the picture entirely…