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The Frozen Ground is unexceptional
Cage, Cusack spar in serial killer drama
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Photo courtesy of LIONSGATE
Nicolas Cage stars as Jack Halcombe in “The Frozen Ground.”
Not every movie can be an Oscar contender.

It also stands to reason that actors who have previously won Academy Awards can’t wait around for the perfect script – and another shot at critical acclaim.

Nicholas Cage is a perfect example. Back in the 1990s, he scored Oscar gold with his performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.” In that era, he was amassing a huge list of award wins and nominations, for everything from “Moonstruck” to “Adaptation.” More recently, he has been less choosy about his films. A string of lackluster performances – “Season of the Witch,” “Drive Angry,” “Trespass,” “Seeking Justice” and “Stolen” – have damaged his once distinguished reputation. Personal problems – broadcast and undoubtedly exaggerated by the tabloids – have further tarnished the actor’s standing.

Cage shows a glimpse of his enduring potential in Lionsgate’s new thriller “The Frozen Ground.” His performance is relatively minimalist, and the brooding, conscientious character he portrays – Jack Halcombe – suits his demeanor.

In “The Frozen Ground,” Halcombe – an Alaskan State Trooper – is assigned a daunting case, tracking a serial killer who has virtually gone unnoticed for 13 years. When one of the killer’s victims manages to escape, she reports her abduction and rape to authorities. Due to her background as a runaway and prostitute, investigators initially discount her account.

Eventually, the 17-year-old escapee – Cindy Paulson, played capably by Disney alum Vanessa Hudgens – provides enough details to Halcombe to allow him to start connecting the dots.

John Cusack portrays the killer, Robert Hansen. Cusack gives a consistently chilling performance throughout, painting the murderer as a coldly sadistic predator. Cusack’s Hansen is meticulous and manipulative – outwardly reserved and retiring until cornered.

This very adult role for Hudgens proves the “High School Musical” actress is serious about her career. Her depiction of Paulson is surprisingly multifaceted. She showcases the character’s cynicism, underscores the tragedy of her past experiences and delivers some particularly unsettling moments in the backrooms of an Alaskan strip club. Whenever the film achieves a certain level of gritty realism, “The Frozen Ground” is actually difficult to watch.

These solid performances unfortunately don’t fully compensate for the film’s flaws.

“The Frozen Ground” is based on a true story. Director Scott Walker spends too much time exhibiting the formulaic police procedural sequences that have become monotonously common on television crime dramas. He asks the audience to follow three separate story arcs but fails to fully develop any one of the central characters. He further fails to fully exploit the talent of the supporting cast, which includes 50 Cent as Clate Johnson, Katherine LaNasa as Fran Hansen, Dean Norris as Sgt. Lyle Haugsven and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe as Chelle Ringell.

There’s nothing particularly inspired or innovative about “The Frozen Ground” – it’s filled with genre clichés, from bureaucratic bickering and ready-to-retire heroes to moral certitude and a bulky textual epilogue. Walker tried to make a story based on actual events conform to the generic police procedural motif – in this case, the square peg did not fit the round hole.

There have been a number of exceptional films based on authentic serial killer cases, such as “Monster” and “Citizen X.” “The Frozen Ground” lacks the psychological depth of “Monster,” about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. While “Citizen X” – a made-for-TV film about Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo – spends a great deal of time examining bureaucratic hurdles and demoralizing procedural obstacles, it delivers a brilliant and thorough study of its central character, forensic specialist Viktor Burakov. Both “Monster” and “Citizen X” are masterpieces in this distinct crime drama subgenre dominated by sensationalistic and subpar filmmaking.

Not every movie can be a masterpiece.

“The Frozen Ground” isn’t a complete failure, but it could have been much better. The subject matter is engrossing, and the acting is exceptional: It is arguably Cage’s best performance in years. The breakdown is all in the execution. The fine cast makes the film compelling and watchable. The unfocused script and failure to fully develop the characters make it regrettably unmemorable.

“The Frozen Ground” was released theatrically Aug. 23 to a select few markets. To date, the film hasn’t been featured at any Tampa Bay area locations. “The Frozen Ground” is currently available for rental viewing on Bright House On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
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