Nicolas Cage’s latest thriller proves revenge isn’t always a dish best served cold.
On the surface, you would be forgiven for thinking that Dying of the Light is a run-of-the-mill revenge flick about a guy who works for the CIA, got tortured once and never quite got over it.
Sure, it has the car chases and the guns that go “Bang! Bang!” It also has the archetypal buddy sidekick who tags along for the ride in spite of his better judgement, plus the obligatory nation-hopping and intel-gathering. But did I mention that all of this is just background noise in a much more affecting, personal story about the nature of aging and degenerative disease?
Cage plays the aforementioned CIA agent Evan Lake, seeking revenge on the terrorist leader Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim), who tortured him for information over twenty years ago.
A lot has changed since then. Lake has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, an aggressive form of dementia he is told cannot be cured. Despite being well-respected at the CIA after his years of experience, as soon as his superiors decide his illness makes him a liability, he is quickly ushered out of the door.
But Lake has a new resolution in mind. He gains intel that Muhammad Banir is still alive after having gone off the radar all those years ago. The CIA no longer considers Banir an active threat and so Lake is left to bring him down on his own, with a little help from his remaining friends in the agency. The intel on Banir reveals a crucial stake in the plot: he also has a degenerative disease that is slowly killing him.
The result is two men coming to terms with their mortality pitted against each other, bound by a past that neither can forget. Most modern revenge films would culminate in an epic showdown fight full of pyrotechnics and bloodshed, but this is no Tarantino flick and there is no Crazy Eighty-Eight for Evan Lake to cut down; his biggest enemy is his own worsening mental condition.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Alexander Karim’s performance as the house-bound ex-terrorist steals the spotlight at every opportunity. His scenes are mostly short and bittersweet, each giving a vital glimpse of his almost-pitiful descent from a position of influence into relative obscurity and deterioration. His penultimate scene with Cage is a highlight of the movie because of its back-and-forth mental power struggle between these two essentially powerless men.
As mentioned, there are some violent moments in the film. These are quick, punchy and unglamorous, in keeping with the film’s attempt at an understated tone. In fact, the only thing that ever causes the somewhat high-brow mood to waver is the odd lapses of dialogue into cheap B-Movie territory.
This isn’t a standout in its genre by a long shot; Oldboy was the best revenge flick to ask about the nature of vengeance when the years have already passed by. Whilst Oldboy sees a protagonist grow more and more hungry for retribution with every passing year, Dying of the Light presents an alternative;
a revenge ploy to perhaps achieve a sense of purpose and peace in the ‘dying light’ of a character’s life.
Of course, you can easily sit through this film’s brisk ninety-odd minute runtime and never dwell on its deeper themes, yet still be perfectly entertained by the revenge quest unfolding on the surface. Nonetheless, the invitation for reflection gives it a life beyond its A-to-B narrative.
Dying of the Light is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.