Film: Just not up to snuff

The Big Picture
After the unpardonable mess of his previous effort, Batman & Robin, any film Joel Schumacher made would have to be considered a step forward. 8mm is indeed an improvement, if not exactly what you'd call improving. Sex and violence have been crunched into a gruesome two-for-the-price- of-one package, raising familiar questions about this director's integrity: is he a ruthless opportunist or genuinely preoccupied with the dark side? 8mm may leave you feeling he's actually a bit of both.

It begins intriguingly. Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private detective hired by a rich widow to investigate a reel of film found in her late husband's safe. The footage apparently shows the torture and murder of a young woman, and it's Tom's job to find out her identity and whether she was, in fact, the victim of a snuff movie. Well, it's some kind of living, so Tom packs his bags, furrows his brow, and sets off on this merry quest. Neat in jacket and tie, Nicolas Cage is back to hangdog mode after the flamboyant bulldog of Snake Eyes: Tom takes everything very seriously, even smoking, which he seems to have learnt from a handbook called Cigarettes and the Art of Cool: A Private Eye's Guide.

For the film to work it's important that we see Tom as an innocent; this is a man whose stock in trade is divorce, not the outer limits of depravity. To this end one expects the tonal range of the film to shift between light and dark as our knight in shining raincoat feels the grime beginning to cling. Unfortunately, Schumacher has omitted one half of the contrast and chosen to steep everything in gloom from the word go. Even tender domestic scenes between Tom and his wife (Catherine Keener) are cast in funereal shadow; there hasn't been a movie of such tenebrous foreboding since Seven which, not coincidentally, was written by the same man, Andrew Kevin Walker. Seven was quite deliberately a vision of hell on earth, whereas 8mm needs the balance of light and shade if the moral journey of its protagonist is to have any potency. By the end the movie looks as though it's been made during a power cut.

Having trawled the missing persons files and come up with a possible name for the lost girl, Tom makes West Hollywood his first port of call. Here he falls in with a tattooed porn-store clerk named Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who will play Virgil to his Dante as he descends into the Hades of LA's hard-core scene. Max maintains an amused detachment from this empire of sleaze, but on the threshold he warns Tom: "There are things you're gonna see that you can't unsee... Before you know it, you're in it." So follows a freak-show cavalcade of buyers and sellers, of painted girls, sweaty backroom producers and strongmen in leather masks. Hooray for Hollywood! To be honest, I expected something a little more shocking than what Schumacher serves up here. Even when Tom quietly wipes his hand on his shirt after putting down another slice of porno smut, one never gets the sense of something truly, unregenerately evil.

I kept hoping the film would take a risk and show Tom succumbing to the siren lure of porn, in the way Al Pacino was seduced by the gay subculture of Cruising. But Mychael Danna's eerie Middle Eastern-influenced score aside, there's not much from this carnival of grotesquerie to unsettle or indeed intoxicate. That includes Peter Stormare as an underground S&M film-maker called Dino Velvet, lurking in a Hallowe'en den of reds and blacks. If Mr Velvet had been equipped with horns, toasting fork and a whiff of sulphur he could scarcely make his presence more obvious: say hello to old Nick himself. Stormare has cornered a market in villainous slime - Fargo, The Lost World - but his agent ought to keep close watch or they'll be booking him for panto next.

As for Cage, he does the best he can with a role of surpassing dourness. He's one of very few actors who make going nuts look believable, even desirable, but reining in his naturally ballistic instincts tends to flatten him. His mood perks up when he teams up with Joaquin Phoenix, and the pair have some nice bantering scenes together, one of them in front of an acid-green-and- yellow wall that feels like a rainbow after the relentless murk of the porn underworld. But things soon turn dark and grungy once more as the plot is cranked up into a revenge thriller and Cage is required to turn action hero. It says much of Schumacher's film-making sensibility that the finale first rips off The Silence of the Lambs before switching to a graveyard under pouring rain. His appetite for Gothic excess shows no sign of flagging. It's a shame, because under the control of a more thoughtful director 8mm might have caught not just the moral rot but the squalid enchantment of the world it investigates. As things stand, this just isn't up to snuff.