Oh, the horror! The inhumanity! The drudgery of having to sit through another neo-noir thriller that barely has time to get on its feet before it stumbles under the weight of a top-heavy performance by Nicolas Cage, seamy direction by Joel Schumacher, and a patchwork script by that guy who wrote “Seven.”

“8mm” is a nifty title for a film that’s not nearly as clever. Instead, much of what appears on the screen in “8mm” has been lifted from much better films. It’s like the celluloid version of that good luck wedding poem, something borrowed, something blue, something old, and not much that’s new.

I remember back in the middle 1970’s there was a big uproar over a film called “Snuff.” It was supposed to be a legitimate “snuff” movie, a film where the performer is actually killed on screen. I remember all the hoopla as the film garnered a notorious “X” rating, and faced protestors as it played in local theaters. As it turned out, the film was nothing more than a imported Mexican action film with some fake butchery added on to the finale. It was all hype.

That’s what Private Investigator Tom Welles believes about snuff movies. Nothing more than urban legends. His tune changes when he’s approached by the widow of the state’s wealthiest man and given an 8 millimeter film the widow believes shows a young woman being murdered.

An expert in surveillance whose clientele consists mostly of disgruntled or suspicious spouses, Welles is intrigued by the film, and once he views it, finds himself on a personal journey to prove what he saw was fake. Welles’ journey takes him from his comfortable home and wife (Catherine Keener) in Pennsylvania to the mean streets of Hollywood, where he tags up with the owner of a porn shop for a tour of the city’s seamy underbelly.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Paul Schrader covered pretty much the same territory in “Hardcore,” a brutal 1979 Paul Schrader film starring George C. Scott as a mid- western father looking for his daughter in Hollywood after seeing her in an adult movie. The anger and anguish in George C. Scott grew with the character’s feeling of helplessness.

Writer Andrew Kevin Walker uses the viewing of the supposed snuff film to send Welles over the top, and in Cage’s hands, the transformation rings totally false. It’s hard to believe that someone working as a private detective would react so strongly to such a film, even if it were real.

Walker treats the private showing as a pivotal turning moment in Welles life, yet nothing in the character’s make-up nor the film warrant such reaction. That seems to be the film’s main problem. Instead of just playing it as it lays, director Joel Schumacher insists on making every incident or event reactionary.

It’s all in your face as if we’re not going to understand that these people are bad, or that pornography can be harmful to young women if they get killed making it.

The filmmaker’s delight in taking us into back rooms and down dark alleys. Schumacher pushes the envelope as far as he can without getting an “NC-17,” yet some of the images that made the cut are borderline. Tough and gritty is one thing, tawdry and seedy are another.

The deeper Welles and porn store owner Max Hollywood (Joaquin Phoenix) delve into the kinky underworld of the porno film trade the more the film begins to fall apart. There’s little suspense and virtually no mystery in a film that should have been ripe for both.

The shady characters Welles meets along the way seem like they either came from Central Casting or were lifted from another film, with Peter Stormare overacting even more than he did in “Armageddon.” I have nothing against tight, taut thrillers, and I definitely don’t have anything against adult movies. I don’t even have a hang-up about snuff films.

In high school they were called driver’s education films, on video they’re called “Faces of Death,” and on television, it’s basically anything that Fox is showing that week. What I do have is a hang-up about high rent filmmaker’s and talent wasting their and my time with mediocre efforts like “8mm.”

If you can’t bring anything new to the party, then it’s time to pull the tap out of the keg. I’ve noticed that whenever director Schumacher gets the chance, he loves to titillate. That’s what killed the last “Batman” movie (that and the God awful Akiva Goldsman screenplay), and even though it serves his purposes here, he always goes that extra mile and crosses the line.

Walker’s screenplay starts off promising enough, but like the entire film, it eventually ends up all over the place. That’s what happens when you piece together a screenplay with interesting moments from other much better films. You end up with interesting moments that don’t work because there’s nothing there to connect them.

Ultimately, “8mm” is a hollow experience. The film looks decent, but what’s with that musical score? It’s as if composer Mychael Danna didn’t even see the film he scored. Cage is a good actor, but he needs a director that knows how to reign him in when the going gets tough. Schumacher isn’t that director, and frequently allows his star to dive into the deep end head first.

I imagine that as long as people slow down on the freeway to see if the accident decapitated anyone there will be an audience for films like “8mm.” Do yourself a favor and rent “Hardcore” instead.


Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer in a film directed by Joel Schumacher. Rated R. 124 Min.


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