Robert Duvall and Nicolas Cage in Gone in 60 SecondsGONE IN 60 SECONDS

When, exactly, did Nicolas Cage sell his soul to Jerry Bruckheimer? And is it at all possible for him to get it back?

In the Bruckheimer-produced action flick Gone in 60 Seconds, Cage plays Randall "Memphis" Raines, a legendary car thief, now retired, who is lured back into a life of crime to save his little brother, Kim (Giovanni Ribisi), from death at the hands of a car-thief kingpin (Christopher Eccleston). His mission? To steal 50 luxury cars in four days, or face the consequences. Assisted by a ragtag group of Merry Men (including Robert Duvall, Chi McBride, and Will Patton), this faux-Robin Hood of the automotive world must get the cars, avoid the cops (led by Delroy Lindo and Timothy Olyphant), mend his estranged relationship with Kip, and maybe even fall back in love with an old flame (Angelina Jolie) - and the clock's ticking!

Trouble is, Nicolas Cage doesn't look like he has the energy to do any of that. It's not just the droopy eyelids and blank facial expressions that are his stock in trade; his whole spirit seems defeated, and not for reasons that appear to have anything to do with his character. That's why I'm putting at least some of the blame on Bruckheimer. For those who don't know, Jerry Bruckheimer is the producer responsible for some of the most popular, most terrible movies of the last 20 years - works like Con Air and The Rock (both of which starred Cage) seem to wear their inanity as a badge of honor, and the mega-hit Armageddon just might stand as the most mind-numbingly insipid blockbuster ever made. Gone in 60 Seconds also features what could be termed the Bruckheimer "style" - incoherent action, bizarre editing, beyond-lame jokes, the utter waste of a fine cast (featuring three Oscar winners, no less!) - and Cage, for one, seems exhausted by it. Maybe he's finally realizing what many of us, including fellow thespians like Sean Penn, have known for some time - Cage has completely surrendered his identity as an iconoclastic, often-interesting actor to become a hollow action-pic stud.

Which is not to say that the movie would have worked with anyone else in the lead, either. You don't need a performer of Olivier's caliber to make a car-chase movie work, but you should at least have someone with an eye for staging and a sense of rhythm in the director's chair. Dominic Sena joins the ranks of Bruckheimer's other directors-for-hire (which include the interchangeable Michael Bay and Simon West) that confuse editing for action; they seem to figure if they keep the frames moving at a speedy clip, no one will notice how incoherent the results are. That's criminally misguided, especially in a movie where the plot hinges on car theft.

Think about it: You're not really expecting depth in this summertime thriller about car thieves, but you'd at least expect a little cleverness in how the crimes are committed. How do the thieves track the cars down? What automotive security systems do they have to negotiate - even if it's just The Club? How do they slip cars away under their owners' noses? After viewing Gone in 60 Seconds, you still won't know. Here's what I've been able to come up with: basically, they wait for the cars' owners (when they're around) to look the other way, then they point some electronic gizmos at the doors to unlock them, and then they drive really, really fast. The very first car heist we see in the film takes place in an auto dealership, where Kip throws a brick through the dealership's show window, steals the keys, and takes off - and that just might be the most imaginative theft in the whole of the film.

Okay, so the heists are complete unoriginal - how about the car chases? Well, admittedly, one of them is pretty damn cool, but the editing in this scene was so nut-job that I'm not quite sure I understood exactly what was going on. It seemed to involve a huge canister of gas that was accidentally ignited (if that's the right word), causing it to swerve and veer and smash into cars involved in the chase; it was like watching an enormous game of pinball, and it made me giggle. The rest of the chases are utterly routine - lots of cop cars being destroyed, turbo-powered engines zooming at precisely the right moment, a makeshift ramp that leads to one of those sailing-through-the-air-in-slow-motion shots - nothing you haven't seen in every car-chase movie since the '70s. But louder, of course.

It's almost ridiculous to complain about the waste of a cast in a film like this; there are no true characters, you don't feel the relationships between any of them, and there's no way any sane actor can come close to giving an actual performance. So let's focus on the positive. I was amused by the familial resemblance between Cage and Ribisi (with Grace Zabriskie nicely complementing them as their mom), Olyphant comes through with some nicely understated humor and is a magnetic screen presence, and the unshakable Delroy Lindo, not surprisingly, gives the movie something approaching weight and focus, and I was relieved that the filmmakers didn't turn him into the standard cartoon-of-authority so prevalent in this genre (not that the frequently brilliant Lindo would have stood for that). As for Cage, Duvall, and Jolie... well... they always have their Oscars to remind them of better times.

Will Gone in 60 Seconds be a hit? Duh. Bruckheimer has the Midas touch for empty-headed summertime nonsense, and this venture has a PG-13 rating to boot, ensuring that kids everywhere will line up. Will people enjoy it? Probably. It zips by quickly, features stuntwork aplenty, and stars ex-actor Nicolas Cage. Will they remember it six weeks later? To steal from the movie's omnipresent trailers:

Time it took you to watch Gone in 60 Seconds? Two hours.

Time it took you to forget Gone in 60 Seconds? Sixty seconds.

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