The action-adventure film Outcast, in which Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen star as medieval crusaders in China, marks Nick Powell’s directorial debut. It’s a fitting project for the veteran stunt coordinator and martial arts expert, filled with wall-to-wall action sequences—and little else. Move along if you seek nuance, an original story or character development; the most challenging parts of Outcast are identifying the “British-esque” Jack Sparrow accent that Cage employs for his character or why Christensen’s 12th-century knight sports a decidedly 21st-century faux-hawk.
Powell has designed stunts for a number of action films, including The Last Samurai, X-Men: The Last Stand and The Bourne Identity, and he borrows liberally from those big-budget films. Outcast opens on Jacob (Christensen), an anguished soldier in prayer, which quickly segues into a slo-mo combat sequence between Christians and Muslims in the 12th century. The hand-to-hand battles are taking their toll on crusader Gallain (Cage), who questions killing on behalf of “hypocritical priests.” Jacob instead waxes philosophical in the midst of battle—yes, he stops mid-sentence to yank a spear out of a soldier’s hand to hurl it at an enemy combatant on a roof—and tells Gallain they are doing God’s work.
The battle in the Middle East only serves as the film’s prologue; the action continues three years later in “the Far East,” presumably China, as a deposed emperor appoints his youngest son heir to the throne. He dispatches the boy and his daughter to find his loyal generals before their cruel, warrior brother can kill them all to lay claim to the kingdom. The earlier dialogue between Jacob and Gallain is downright Shakespearean compared to the stilted lines between the royal family, who all speak in some form of broken English. To wit: “My days draw to an end, my son,” says the king. “No, father!” exclaims the youngest son. “That is the nature of life.” Written by James Dormer (who penned the 2011 U.K. thriller The Holding), the script would have worked better as camp—unfortunately, this film is dead serious.
The two storylines eventually meet when the royals encounter Jacob, who’s battle weary and strung out from chasing the opium dragon. They see he’s a skilled soldier and ask for his help to reach the loyalists. Along the journey, there’s a kernel of a love story thrown in for good measure, and a run-in with a mythical outlaw known as “The White Ghost.” (It’s really no surprise who that turns out to be.)
Outcast is a Chinese, Canadian and French co-production that stalled for years in development, and after watching the final product, we can see why. There’s so much wrong with the film on multiple levels. In addition to the over-emoting, Powell tries to do too much with the camerawork and employs a lot of dissolves and slow-motion effects during battle scenes as well as Dutch (diagonal) angles to make the fight scenes more interesting. The film could have used another edit to scrub some of the long, dramatic pauses after a scene’s dialogue is completed.
On a more conceptual level, Outcast unintentionally perpetrates a number of racial and gender stereotypes. In a nod to Western imperialism and domination, the two white men in the film are the only ones capable of protecting and saving the Chinese royal family. Their throwaway, secondary love stories with Asian women also play into a number of cinematic conventions. In other words, been there, done that. And you’d be wise not to go through it again with Outcast.
Director: Nick Powell
Writer: James Dormer
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Hayden Christensen, Yifei Liu
Release Date: In limited theatrical release Feb. 6, 2015 and now available on VOD
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.