A few years ago, prominent director Martin Scorsese got into some public relations hot water when he implied that the MCU was more akin to “roller coasters” than movies. For anyone who was interested, the implication was clear. Movies were prestigious, artistic, a higher form. “Roller coasters,” by contrast, were a primal and basic experience. Anyone who was anyone would pride themselves on knowing that a movie would be better than a “roller coaster.”
“Willy’s Wonderland,” the latest entry in the “Low-Budget-Nic-Cage-Chaos-Movie” genre, basks in its roller-coaster status. There is not a single moment of pretense or irony in the entire film. It’s a masterclass in unsophistication. In fact, one of the most entertaining parts of the movie is how serious it takes itself. But the thing about roller coasters is that they produce a simulation of fear. You know you’re safe, but you’re scared you might not be. They walk a tight rope of tranquility and terror. Such is the experience while viewing “Willy’s Wonderland.”
At the beginning of “Willy’s Wonderland,” we know exactly who Nic Cage is playing. And the answer is every Nic Cage badass ever. This dark-haired, muscle car driving, leather jacket bound ne’re-do-well is required, by law, to enact a chaos-fueled rampage over the course of ninety minutes. And despite the hackneyed style, inaccessible narrative, and silent protagonist, you understand almost instantly that our hero is bound to this conflict by destiny.
Like the pull into a gravitational well, our nameless hero is drawn into an abandoned rodent-themed birthday emporium. The catch is, of course, that the mascot-bots are possessed by the souls of undead serial killers. Tale as old as time. But there’s a wrinkle in the fabric this time. It turns out that if there one area where Mr. Cage excels, it’s the slaughter of demonically possessed Robo-critters. And so, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
But of course, all great heroes have their weaknesses. Be it Kryptonite, ankle bones, or mentions of the name “Martha,” no hero is complete without his crippling and supernatural shortcoming. For our nameless hero in “Willy’s Wonderland,” that’s a strict soda and pinball intake regimen. When his alarm goes off, the man must drink his cola. The soda, called ‘Punch,’ seems inextricably tied to our hero’s power. There are exactly zero (0) minutes of the script spent discussing why our hero would—for instance—walk away from a life or death fight with a Robo-demon because his cola-reminder sounded off. But we know, instinctually, that our silent, nameless hero, draws his strength from this mega-beverage.
The most frustrating part about the film is that “Willy’s Wonderland” leaves us with so many delightfully unanswered questions. “What were the days like before the town stuck a deal with the demon weasel?” “How does this soda and pinball regimen keep our hero…equipped?” “Is this the first time our nameless hero has battled with demonic entities?” By any Hollywood metric, I tell you “Willy’s Wonderland” is a flop. But the film demands a sequel more than any movie in recent memory. If a single one of my “Willy’s Wonderland” questions remains unanswered, I will turn this car around!
Of course by now, dear reader, you will have pictured all of “Willy’s Wonderland,” in its perfect splendor, in your mind’s eye. Over the course of ninety minutes, Nicolas Kim Coppola tears his way through an army of nine puppet mascots, with almost unrelenting prejudice. One by one, he deconstructs Gus Gorilla, Artie the Alligator, and Nighty Knight until all that remains is an oil stain on his “Willy’s Wonderland” t-shirt. Each of the mecha-warriors falls against a sea of overacting perfection that is only worthy of Mr. Cage.
Believe me, reader, when I say that I have been a student of the schlocky, overacting, straight to VOD Nicholas Cage cannon for a few years now. And they don’t usually receive such high praise. Director Kevin Lewis seems to know exactly what to do with Cage. And the decision to take him, the master of over-delivery, and force him to remain silent throughout the film, is genius. He becomes entirely dependent on his emotionality, somehow unburdened by language. It is exactly what his critics have decided him for in the last ten years. And he revels in it.
“Willy’s Wonderland” is the rare instance of a movie that succeeds despite itself. There is not a single moment of this movie that should work. And yet, I remained captivated throughout the entirety of the film. In fact, dear reader, I admit that I gasped out loud at one point. I can’t explain why. For all I know, it was the result of a lesser movie that made a deal with the devil. All I know for sure is it’s one hell of a roller coaster.