By Thomas M. Puhr.

Cage enthusiasts might get a kick out of this film’s meager offerings (if you managed to make it through Willy’s Wonderland, then this one should be a cinch). Others may find themselves daydreaming about Collateral or The Hitcher.

If you’re going to set your film almost entirely in a car and with only two characters, then you better make sure they (and the actors portraying them) are plenty captivating. Though Joel Kinnaman and the inimitable Nicolas Cage are more than capable of fulfilling this tall order, they’re not given much to work with in Yuval Adler’s fleetingly amusing but plodding Sympathy for the Devil (2023).

The film is something of a riff on Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004). Meek and mild David (Kinnaman) is on his way to the Las Vegas hospital where his wife is in labor when a strange man (Cage), known only as “The Passenger,” hops in his backseat. After delivering a lame joke about not being an Uber driver, David learns that his plans for the night are about to drastically change; The Passenger needs a ride to nearby Boulder City, and David will be his escort. Our hero’s bewildered protestations are met with a gun barrel to the face and The Passenger’s announcement that “I’m your family emergency now.”

Like road markers, each of the requisite scenes we’ve come to expect from these movies is dutifully (and underwhelmingly) laid out for David and his unwelcome guest to follow. We get the protagonist’s efforts to grab a police officer’s attention ending in disaster; his desperate escape plan of jumping out of the speeding vehicle ending in disaster; his late-night pitstop with The Passenger to a remote diner ending in disaster (to be fair, this latter set piece’s fiery climax manages to generate some thrills). Such moments could have worked in the right hands, but Adler’s framing lacks any visual panache, any sense of momentum; like clockwork, all of the above scenes are followed by overhead shots of the car driving at night. Workmanlike competence isn’t enough to carry a genre film that already has so little going for it.

As is often the case with his less-prestigious releases, Cage’s manic presence prevents the whole thing from collapsing in on itself. When we first see The Passenger in the backseat of David’s car, he looks like he stumbled out of a comic book (or one of Cage’s candid shots at a premiere): red blazer with oversized black lapels; matching shock of neon-red hair; even an Ace of Spades tucked in his pocket for a card trick he performs for his captive audience of one. A questionable Boston accent is the cherry on top of yet another performance that wavers ambiguously between prankster stunt and earnest delivery. Few actors can sell lines like “I think you broke my beautiful nose, fucker!” with such gusto.

Kinnaman isn’t allowed to have as much fun with his role, which is fine; two bulls in a china shop would have been overkill. But as the straight man, he mostly just goes through the motions his stock character requires: begging for his life, attempting to reason with the madman who has hijacked both his car and life, etc. A late twist about his true identity allows him to flex his actorly muscles a touch more (it also allows his costar to take a breath and add some nuance to his otherwise frenzied performance). But it’s too little too late.

In a way, Adler’s latest is a bit of a missed opportunity, especially since – in its oddest moments – it seems to play with the possibility of being a totally different (and probably better) movie. Cage’s role is so ridiculous, his dialogue and actions so inexplicably weird (highlights include a song and dance routine set to Alicia Bridges’ “Disco Round,” an Edward G. Robinson impression, and a screaming fit in said diner for which over-the-top would be an understatement), that I wondered for a good portion of the film if he was actually the devil. Perhaps David’s secret past has put him on a one-way trip to hell with the antichrist himself, I wondered. Alas, these hopes were dashed when the narrative became a rote neo-noir revenge thriller. Screenwriter Luke Paradise seems to have struggled to stretch a plot that would have made for an unremarkable episode of a TV crime drama into a 90-minute feature. His last act’s tonal pivot makes the preceding hour’s digressions feel all the more like filler.

Cage enthusiasts might get a kick out of this film’s meager offerings (if you managed to make it through Willy’s Wonderland, then this one should be a cinch). Others may find themselves daydreaming about Collateral or The Hitcher until the end credits arrive.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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