It sounds strange, but Nicolas Cage is one of the most versatile actors working today. Just look at the bizarre range of films that he takes on, from National Treasure to Adaptation, Ghost Rider to The Weather Man. And, of course, one of his bigger hits of the past decade was the aforementioned National Treasure series. Now he's back, joined by director Jon Turtletaub for another slice of action/adventure in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Will the third time be the charm for this hit-making duo?
Cage plays Balthazar Blake, master sorcerer taught by Merlin himself. During the film's convoluted opening sequence, we discover that Balthazar is searching for the heir to Merlin's powers while also trying to defend the world from Morganians--evil sorcerers hellbent on destroying the world--led by Horvath (Alfred Molina). Balthazar does discover the heir in the form of young Dave (Jay Baruchel), but a battle with Hovarth leads to both wizards being stuck in an urn for 10 years. After being released, both are hot on the trail of Dave, as he holds the key to the Grimhold, a magical prison holding the most powerful Morganian ever: Morgana (Alice Krige). Dave, meanwhile, is being taught by Balthazar how to use magic, but finds himself distracted by Teresa Palmer (Becky), the girl he's loved since fourth grade.
If this sounds ridiculous in print, rest assured that it makes not much more sense on film. The Sorcerer's Apprentice has no less than six(!) credited writers, and it shows in the overly complex plotting that has the story jumping from medieval times to the year 2000 and then even further to 2010, all in the span of 10 minutes. Once the story proper gets underway, things don't improve much. The Grimhold changes hands more times than a hot potato, and creaky mechanics rear their ugly head far too often (my favorite example is a character that is introduced and killed within three minutes, maybe less). By far the best parts of the film involve the character moments with Jay Baruchel as Dave. While he's mostly up to his old schtick, it's still fun to watch.
The big surprise, to me at least, is Nicolas Cage as Balthazar. No, I'm not shocked that Cage opted to play a crazy thousand year old wizard. I am disappointed that he downplays the character so much as to be almost entirely forgettable. I don't know about you, but I don't go to see a Nicolas Cage movie so he can play it safe. All of his best performances are wild, careening affairs. Not to say that he's out of control, but simply that he makes very strong acting choices. None of that is present in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, where Cage is frequently upstaged by Baruchel and Molina, who at least appears to be having fun as the mustache-twirling villain.
The writing is uniformly awful, with dialogue that is honestly cringe-worthy. The screenwriters (all six of 'em) make the odd choice to try and marry science and magic, which does both a disservice. Science gets the typical Hollywood makeover, while the magic is reduced to not much more than The Force, with the wizards tossing furniture around. You would think that the writers would take the opportunity to do some really cool things with magic, but other than a few set pieces (a dragon in Chinatown, for example), they don't. Heck, the climactic battle is basically just plasma bolts. Big whoop. And don't get me started on the non-presence of Monica Bellucci.
There's really not too much more to say. While The Sorcerer's Apprentice isn't the worst film of the year, that doesn't make it good. A few good jokes and gags are the saving grace of this picture, and taken together that's still not enough to recommend this unfortunate clunker.