If 2022 has taught us anything in these few short months, it is that you can never count Nicolas Cage out. The most mercurial member of the Coppola dynasty is currently receiving glowing reviews for his portrayal of a downtrodden and neurotic version of himself who gets hired by a billionaire superfan (Pedro Pascal) who turns out to be some kind of international crime boss. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent appears to be yet another turning point in the career of a man who was been cinema’s enfant terrible, a romantic comedy heartthrob, a bug-eating shamanic artist, and a reliable work for hire for any number of cheap, gritty action movies in the last several years. Cage has recently revealed that he made a startlingly large number of films in recent years as a means to an end to pay off his astronomical debts and to afford medical care for his mother. In just 2018 and 2019, Nicolas Cage made a solid 10 direct to DVD movies (not including voice roles), the majority of which are not good. Now one of those movies, A Score to Settle, is in the top ten most-streamed films on Netflix. So what is this one?
A Score to Settle was released in 2019, right after fellow direct to DVD movies Between Worlds and Running with the Devil. Let us also be clear that direct to DVD is not necessarily a pejorative term, nor is Nicolas Cage unique in catching a quick paycheck from one of them. However, they do tend to be fairly run-of-the-mill productions, swapping in lead actors and generic B-listers as action stars for a day. It cannot be said that Nicolas Cage ever really lets anything he is involved with be run of the mill. Even when it comes to undistinguished fare that will likely never see a theatrical release, Cage claims that he gives it as much effort and care as he would say, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart or Jon Turtletaub’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A Score to Settle was directed by Shawn Ku (who previously helmed Beautiful Boy with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello) and was written by John Stuart Newman (a former staff writer for the television adaptation of Get Shorty), and you would have to ask them if he did.
Truth be told, Nicolas Cage does put in a bit of a sleepy performance in A Score to Settle. That makes sense for his character Frank Carver, a former small-time mobster just out of prison. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see a young Frank (played by Bailey Coppola, Cage’s nephew) giving tips to an older man on his baseball swing. In a reverse shot, it is revealed they are hitting baseballs at a bound and bleeding man pleading for his life. Eventually, the older mobsters beats the man to death with the bat, and Frank agrees to take the fall. The next we see him, Frank is now Nicolas Cage with greying sideburns and an air of sadness. He is released early from his sentence due to a potentially fatal case of insomnia, and that is where things start to fall apart for A Score to Settle.
Granted, that is pretty early in the film for things to start to unravel, but so it goes. Upon leaving prison, Nicolas Cage meets up with his son Joey (Noah Le Gros of Yellowstone spinoff 1883), who appears like a spectral traveler in a dingy hoodie on a dark road. It turns out that Cage’s character took a $450k payoff to take the murder rap, and also protection for his wife and young son. But unsurprisingly, murderous gangsters are not really the “keeping their word” types, and things have gone awry in the meantime.
A Score to Settle has a dismal 15% Critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it really does not deserve that low of a score. It is a movie of a certain medium quality, which even the intermittent soulfulness Nicolas Cage manages to bring to the role cannot completely save. This movie could potentially have the melancholy vibes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or the emotional ultraviolence of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, but it does not have the ambition to reach for the heights of either. But it does have Nicolas Cage, which is more than either of those movies can say.