Director James McTeigue's two films to date have been polar opposites as far as quality is concerned; his debut V For Vendetta was a visually stunning, meticulous distillation of Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novels, while his follow-up, the almost universally-panned Ninja Assassin, was directed with a curious lack of enthusiasm and staggering level of anonymity. Quite apt it is then, that his third feature, The Raven, is a perfectly mediocre excursion; a promising yet ultimately disappointing outing which falls somewhere between his first two films in terms of quality. When we first set our eyes upon Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack), he is in a bad way, pallid and near death on a park bench in Baltimore. It is a scene given context by the rest of the film, which flashes back to reveal that a crazed murderer is making the rounds, basing their grisly killings on Poe's own macabre works of fiction. A young detective, Emmett Fields (Luke Evans), brings Poe into the fold as a consultant, hoping that as the inspiration for the killings, he might shed some light on what is to follow. While John Cusack is hardly a dream casting choice for a role like this - after all, Joaquin Phoenix, a far more certain pick, was once approached to star - he does more to make the role his own than you might reasonably expect. While far too good looking - as most Hollywood stars are - to play the beleaguered poet, The Raven finds Cusack in an uncharacteristically manic mode, albeit one which nevertheless allows his inherently likeable persona to shine through as a charming drunk and charismatic wordsworth. Most importantly, Cusack manages to capture the essence of Poe's wit, though that's more down to his natural chutzpah than anything, for this meek screenplay does little to help him. For starters, scribes Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare have one character refer to the act of "picking up your teeth with broken fingers", a classic zinger which they have lazily lifted from the classic drama The Crying Game (which won an Academy Award for its screenplay). More problematically, the narrative gets too bogged down in an ennui-inducing romantic subplot between Poe and his wife-to-be Emily (Alice Eve), a dullard of a love interest who later becomes a damsel in distress once she is kidnapped by the killer. There's just so much filler here; a masquerade ball looks like it's going to move the plot along but doesn't and fails to muster any suspense either. Even on the most basic level of satisfying the gore-hounds with some blood-letting, it takes far too long to get to the grisly elements, which disappointingly though unsurprisingly assumes a strictly procedural, follow-the-breadcrumbs approach. The goose chase quickly becomes tiresome as Poe and Fields search for the likes of a missing stage hand, and most of these set-ups simply lead to yet another list of names and places. Only a trek through some catacombs in search of Emily is even slightly eerie, but the lifeless atmosphere will nevertheless keep your pulse from racing. Even when Poe stands alone in the fog, trailing an assailant, the mood is promptly derailed as McTeigue's heavy-handed direction takes hold, throwing some unnecessary and awkward CGI bullets into the mix. The helmer's distressing lack of restraint carries through from the overuse of CGI gore - appropriate for his previous film, but not this one - to the ending, not-so-predictable with its reveal, yet positively unable to resist a distended epilogue which includes, you guessed it, another CGI bullet used as an exclamation point. Cusack delivers a solid performance albeit one people won't be talking much about precisely because McTeigue's sloppy direction is so distracting. The supporting cast is meanwhile a mixed bag; Brendan Gleeson is fun and well-placed as the beardy, pissed off Colonel, though Evans is an underwhelming fit as Fields, lacking the intensity which might have made him a more compelling figure. The inherently likeable Cusack fares surprisingly well in one of his darkest roles, but The Raven's clever premise is totally undermined by James McTeigue's tactless, bumbling direction. The Raven opens March 9th in the UK but not until April 27th in the US.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.