When I saw the trailer for this film, my first thought was, "Nicolas Cage? Really?" From his rather lengthy filmography, I've only really enjoyed a few films starring the man, namely Con Air and Adaptation. There's something about him that prevents me from being able to see anything but him, as an actor, rather than him as a character. That problem exists fully here again, as Cage is unable to disappear inside of Balthazar, a sorcerer who has roamed the Earth for millenia, trying to find the "Prime Merlinean," a descendant of his master, the original Merlin, and the only sorcerer capable of destroying the powerful Morgana LeFey, who wants to take over the world. This bit of exposition isn't handled any less directly by the film, which smashes you into the tale of Balthazar and his fellow sorcerer's apprentices, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) and Horvath (Alfred Molina), in order to hurry up and get to our hero, Dave (Jay Baruchel).
(On a side note, the whole idea of a search for the "Prime Merlinean" is a bit silly, since it's mentioned that this person would be a descendant of Merlin. How many kids could Merlin have had and how far-flung could they have been? Wouldn't his apprentices have known his kids? And when exactly did he tell them about the Prime Merlinean? Wouldn't he have said, "Yeah, if something happens, my son Jake can take over. He's in the next town over."
After setting up Dave's story (we get to see him first meet Balthazar as a child in a encounter that establishes Dave's status as something special) we again jump ahead, to see Dave as an awkward college student. (Watching this, I thought, imagine Baruchel, Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg in the same movie. A very twitchy experience it would be.) Dave is attending NYU as a physics whiz, having forgotten entirely about Balthazar (supposedly through therapy), manipulating electricity instead of the elements. But that soon changes when Balthazar returns to his life, mainly because Dave's being hunted by Balthazar's eternal foe Horvath, who has plans for him and his potential abilities as a sorcerer.
The film moves in fits and starts as it establishes the players and the plot, before plunging into the action that goes with telling the story of a sorcerer's apprentice. Keeping his own reasons for what he does close to the vest, Balthazar sets about teaching young Dave about his powers, with some silly early failures before moving into the cool stuff, which is really where the fun of this film lies. There's a lot of cutesy family-friendly gags for Baruchel to wince and whimper through, including magical crotch hits and a painfully awkward relationship with a fellow student (who just happened to know him as a child) as well as scenes with his wholly unnecessary roommate, likely injected into the film for a bit of diversity. These moments, like the homage to the film's titular inspiration, get their laughs from the crowd like clockwork, but they'll have action fans rolling their eyes.
Things pick up though when we get into the meat of the film, thanks to some pretty impressive special effects on the magic they wield (including a nifty mirror concept), and some bigger battles, like Dave's fight with an ancient Chinese wizard and a breakneck car chase through Manhattan. Director Jon Turteltaub (who led Cage through two National Treasure films) does a nice job getting everything up on the screen, especially when it came to bringing some New York icons to magical life, but everything has a gloss to it (along with a need to go for a laugh constantly) that kills a bit of the impact. It all feels like we're on a backlot, rather than in a real world where sorcerers and mystical creatures exist. That Cage can't cloak himself in his character only adds to that problem.
Despite that, it's a pretty fun time in the theater, thanks to Baruchel's unease as a hero (which is, importantly, very easy to buy) and the quality of the villainy he faces. Besides the aforementioned wizard and another creepy baddie, Molina is full of pompous evil as Horvath, aided by an iconic look right out of Sherlock Holmes (for some reason), while his sidekick, Criss Angel-like magician Drake Stone (the fun Toby Kebbell,) adds just the right touch of bumbling ineffectiveness to the team. As Dave learns his craft and raises his game, there's a genuine level of excitement the film manages to build, and it draws you in. Though the ending might again get action fans' eyes rolling, there's no denying that it was an entertaining journey to get there. And if it had starred someone else, it could have been fantastic.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.