Let’s get right to the point. If you’re interested in the bizarre, admirable, hilarious, artistic, incredible moment that is Nicolas Cage’s career right now, then you should know what the deal is here. Willy’s Wonderland features the unpredictable star playing a boot wearing, leather clad, shades-on drifter who battles a group of murderous animatronic characters in hand-to-hand combat. Take whatever kind of substance you prefer (or don’t, you do you!) and strap in. This is an unapologetically silly, badass, and strangely joyful ride.
Directed by Kevin Lewis (The Third Nail, The Drop) with a screenplay by G.O. Parsons, the film follows Cage speeding down dusty roads when he suddenly has car troubles. Stuck in the middle of very small town America, the local mechanic (Chris Warner) only takes cash, and there is no working ATM for probably hundreds of miles. Cage will have to work for it, so he’s handed a job as the nighttime janitor for a run-down family entertainment center. Willy’s Wonderland – obviously inspired by places like Chuck E. Cheese or Great Wolf Lodge (minus the water park) – proudly displays its mascot, Willy the Weasel (Jiri Stanek), above the various graffiti sprayed all over the building. The place’s grinning owner, Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz), assures the new custodian that everything is perfectly fine and safe, but there is an obvious sense that something’s up.
Here is the stylistic sort of twist of this film: Cage’s character doesn’t say a word. For the entire movie. Adding to a list of films with silent (or mostly silent) protagonists like Drive, Only God Forgives, Blade Runner 2049 – wow, a lot of Ryan Gosling films! – or Valhalla Rising (show Mads Mikkelsen some love), or even Mandy (which Cage also starred in). He is able to convey everything we need through face alone; a testament to both his talents and the kind of legendary cult movie icon image that’s built up around him these past few years. Willy’s Wonderland isn’t exactly as meditative as those other films, and its action – while exceedingly violent – is played more for exciting entertainment than gritty realism.
It’s a bit like a video game in some respects, not just because it shares a similar premise to Five Nights at Freddy’s, but in the way many RPGs or first-person games feature mute protagonists; or how the movie plays out like a kind of power fantasy with Cage tearing through waves of killer animatronics in brutally fun ways. When the creepy characters come to life and start to attack, he doesn’t flinch at the absurdity of the situation, he just starts beating ass. When they first draw blood from him he seems a bit surprised, then with a knowing smirk, he jumps back into the fray and makes an oily mess out of the building’s haunted inhabitants. It’s as if it’s his first real challenge in a long time, culminating in a boss fight with Willy himself.
He is eventually joined by a group of teenagers looking to burn the place down, and it’s here that the film frustratingly resorts to tired slasher tropes that don’t allow many of them to become anything beyond thinly sketched archetypes. These characters are aware of the dangers inside yet they still make dumb decisions like wandering around by themselves or sneaking off to go have sex, and it makes their inevitable gruesome deaths feel both predictable and hollow. They are just here to die and add to the carnage. The exception is the group’s leader, Liv (played by Emily Tosta of Party of Five as well as her YouTube channel), who acts as the team’s moral compass and proves herself to have the same warrior spirit as the building’s new janitor.
There is something deeply soothing about watching Nicolas Cage go about his work cleaning and tidying up the place. When he discovers a dusty pinball machine, his eyes light up and he lovingly restores it in a scene that’s just as satisfying as the old man fixing up Woody in Toy Story 2. There is a passion there, and once the machine is up and running, he guzzles down energy drinks and plays it with an intense and joyful energy that brings some wondrous levity to the film. It perfectly captures the magic of a good game of pinball in the middle of the night, with a triumphant synth heavy score backing it all. Then of course, it’s right back to the mayhem.
Willy’s Wonderland is unapologetically ridiculous, but that allows for it to be a whole lot of fun. It’s not very deep, but it surprisingly manages to not be completely shallow either despite occasional missteps. It’s like a bizarre hidden gem thrown into Cage’s already vast and eclectic body of work. The actor also produced this film, and if you had the chance to make a movie that includes a scene where you duke it out with a robotic gorilla armed only with a plunger, wouldn’t you do it?