Rated R - Running time: 2:04 - Reviewed 2/26/99

Nicolas Cage is getting less and less interesting these days. His great characters in Raising Arizona and Peggy Sue Got Married have given way to action figures (Con Air, The Rock, Face/Off), and this is a shame. Of course, there's a heckuva lot more dough to be made as the main character in an action flick than some goofy guy in a goofy movie. He did add some energy to his private eye role in Snake Eyes, blending action with his old-style, overblown characterization. But anybody could have done as well with his part in Joel Schumacher's 8MM. A deeply disturbing film about the evil that lurks in the dirty, dark rooms of the human psyche, 8MM is effective (and seriously creepy), but Cage's part is about as deep as a windowpane. His flat performance is perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the movie.

Cage plays Tom Welles, a detective hired by wealthy widow Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter) to uncover the origins of an eight millimeter film she discovered in her husband's vault after his death. The amateurish "snuff" film, directed by a pornographer for someone's perverse thrills, shows a scantily-clad teenage girl being butchered by a man in a black mask. Understandably, the widow wants to know how her husband came to possess this vile footage, and whether the girl was really killed on film or if it was faked. She is ready to pay Welles whatever he needs to investigate this, and that is why he takes such an unpleasant assignment: He needs the money.

Welles tells his wife (Catherine Keener), who is uncomfortable with his frequent job-related absences, that he'll be finished in a few weeks, but the more he uncovers about the film and the porn industry, the more complex the case becomes. He finds the girl's picture among Cleveland's missing persons files, and tracks down her mother (Amy Morton). He finds an L.A. porn shop owner (Joaquin Phoenix) who identifies the filmmakers. And before he is finished, he discovers much more than he ever wanted to know.

8MM sports three separate bad guys: There are the film's director, Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare), the distributor, Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini), and the onscreen, masked murderer known only as "Machine" (Christopher Bauer). This triumvirate makes one highly unpleasant villain, but none of their performances is outstanding by itself. Added evil, on a lesser scale, is provided by Anthony Heald as the unscrupulous attorney who arranged the deal with the wealthy Mr. Christian.

This film was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, author of Seven. It is chilling in a Silence of the Lambs sort of way, but none of the villains is on a level with Anthony Hopkins, and Cage, here anyway, is nowhere near Jodie Foster. For a protagonist, his Welles is not an especially likable character; he is irresponsible with his family and unmoved by the creepy situation. Though he makes a few unconvincing gestures toward being so moved, he doesn't really get going emotionally until the final reel. Phoenix, whose performance in Return To Paradise still haunts me, is nearly that good here as the frustrated musician forced to turn porn vender. His character, like the girl in the film, is one of the millions of "good kids" who sell their souls to pay the rent.

8MM is a film that presents a clear view of something no one wants to see. It makes us crouch in the shadows and watch as the tears of a young girl are treated like cash crops, put on the market for the pleasure of others. It is good work by Schumacher, but hard to watch nonetheless. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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