Movie Review: Let’s turn Nic Cage loose in “Willy’s Wonderland”

“Yeah, I’ll do your little movie,” the pitch meeting ended, probably a short one, probably handled by phone. But the Oscar winning actor had one rider he insisted on in his contract.

“I’ll do it so long as I don’t have to talk.”

Say this for the quixotic career of Nicolas Cage, Academy Award winner, “Moonstruck” star, “National Treasure” national treasure — the man knows his brand. And while his contemporaries may grimace through one straight-to-video dog after another, silently seething at the status they’ve lost, ol’Nic just keeps burnishing that South by Southwest/Comic Con/C-movie nerd approved image.

Because collecting little checks, one right after the other, is just as good as a big payday every couple of years. Especially if, as he once told me in an interview, he needs the constant distraction of constant work. It keeps him sane.

And every so often, a “Joe” or “Color Out of Space” or “Mandy” comes along and has everybody saying, “I’ve ALWAYS thought Nic Cage was cool!”

“Willy’s Wonderland” isn’t one of those movies. But maybe “The Underbearable Weight of Massive Talent” will be. Or the Joe Exotic miniseries he will star in. Because with James Brown gone, THIS is “the hardest working man in show business.”

“Willy’s Wonderland” is a haunted theme park tale. A Camero-driving stranger (Cage) is bushwhacked on the road, a “helpful” tow truck driver (Chris Warner) picks him up — for a price.

And the owner of this theme park, Tex (Ric Reitz) is there to make him a deal. He’ll cover the car repairs if he’ll “stay the night cleaning” this abandoned but to-be-reopened funhouse attraction, Willy’s Wonderland.

It closed a few years back because “mommy ‘safety’ organizations shut us down.” But Tex has a dream.

The silent stranger takes off his sunglasses, dons a t-shirt like a “real employee,” and gets to work as the doors are padlocked behind him.

The Stranger brought his own case of Punch Cola with him. And every so often, his watch alarm goes off, he’ll gulp a punch and maybe take a break by playing pinball.

But those damned animatronic critters that fill this place? Their eyes follow him around. They come to malign life every time a cleaner comes.

“I’m gonna tear your EYES out and FEAST on your soul” doesn’t shake our man-with-a-cleaning mission.

Got to put down the mop, break out a knife or maybe break that mop handle in half as he furiously impales, guts, decapitates or strangles the creatures — who are eerily familiar, in non-copyright infringing ways.

There’s a murderous fairy with a hint of Tinkerbelle, a Banana Splits-ish gorilla, a Wally Gator here and H.R. PufnStuff there.

This place is like the Carowinds in Hell! If that’s not redundant

But these local teens keep trying to burn this place down because they know what happens inside.

“You’re not SAFE in there,” Liv (Emily Tosta) shouts. “We gotta get you OUT!”

The Stranger won’t listen, Liv won’t torch the place with him in it, so she goes to fetch him, and five of her friends follow, turning this into a “Dead Teenagers Movie,” with all that implies.

The fights are competently-handled and arrive at the proper intervals for fanboys to howl in gory appreciation.

Veteran character actress Beth Grant plays the sheriff, who does all she can to keep Liv out of trouble. The older players register in the expected ways. The younger ones? Nobody stands out.

Director Kevin Lewis powers through this thing (the odd mispronounced “blown” line makes it into the film) as if he knows the script is crap and that his leading lady’s not the best at registering shock, fear or fury and there’s no point in looking for a better take.

But Cage, dyed hair, beard and boots, brings home the B-movie bacon, as usual. It’s just seriously undercooked this time out.

MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner

Credits: Directed by Kevin Lewis, script by G.O. Parsons. A Screen Media release

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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